Years ago, Highway 29 was a pedestrian path the Indians used to get from one end of the valley to the other. When the idea of a bike/hike path connecting Vallejo to Calistoga was being considered, County Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht saw it as a return to that original path. “We are here to connect towns and villages,” he said.
The late Tom Shelton, a wine industry leader and former president/CEO of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, was one of the first to dream out loud about building a valley-long hike/bike path. Shelton, and avid cyclist, was on the Napa Valley Vintners Association Board of Directors and served as President of the organization. At his memorial service in October, 2008, his family asked that, in lieu of flowers, friends donate money to the Napa Valley Bike Trail Fund. There was no path or even plans for one, but it was a start.
Chuck McMinn, who with this wife Anne owns Vineyard 29, had also been thinking about the feasibility of a hike/bike trail connecting both ends of the Valley. By his admission, McMinn is not an avid cyclist, but he and Anne like to rent bicycles when they are traveling, so they can enjoy new communities at an easy pace. Such a trail seemed like a natural to him.
The month that Tom Shelton died, the Vintners Association asked McMinn to chair their Community Outreach Committee. McMinn saw this as a perfect opportunity – he agreed to the appointment, but only on the condition that he could try and make the path a reality. “It took the Vintners less than twenty-four hours to agree and give me their full backing,” he said. Of course, now he had to make it happen. Fortunately, that’s when he met Philip Sales.
Sales is a landscape architect and planner who served as a consultant to the Napa Valley Transportation Authority (NVTA) board in 2007 (“Napa County Transportation and Planning Agency” as it was called then.) He, too, had thought about a trail connecting the valley. As the Chief Planner in Sonoma County for twenty years, he had plenty of experience planning and building trails. But this project, which would require the cooperation of thirteen different public agencies, was a different animal altogether. The NCTPA commissioned the feasibility study Philip was working on in 2007, which was completed a year later. Sales fully expected it to sit on a shelf and collect dust. Enter, Chuck McMinn.
The two men recognized that theirs was a perfect partnership. Besides being a planner and landscape architect, Sales knew how the municipal world worked. McMinn understood the private sector and had the leadership skills to make a project like this happen. The men went to work, McMinn by forming the Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition, a nonprofit group dedicated to making the trail a reality, and Sales by working as its pro-bono consultant.
Sales said the undertaking presents unique challenges. One is that the new nonprofit not only advocates for the trail but also handles fundraising, preliminary planning, engineering, environmental impact reports and even construction. While that kind of soup to nuts approach is unusual, it can be a plus. “ For example, a half mile section of the Oak Knoll project located within the City of Napa was going to be left out because easements had not been secured before a grant deadline. As a nonprofit, the Napa Valley Vine Trail was nimble enough to step in. With the assistance and support of the City of Napa, the Vine Trail secured funding for the Salvador Channel Bridge through a private donor and worked with the City of Napa and a local contractor to complete that section of the project,” said Sales.
The fundraising aspect is a true game changer for the project. The Vine Trail Coalition set a goal of raising $38 million in federal and state grants. It has assisted NVTA, Solano Transportation Authority and other jurisdictions with grant writing. As a result, $16 million in federal and state funds have been raised to build the trail. The NVTA has also pledged almost a million dollars in local discretionary funds and staff time. The Vine Trail Coalition has raised over $7.5 million in private funds including two grants from the Napa Valley Vintners and Visit Napa Valley for $2.5 million each. The County of Napa, City of Napa, American Canyon, Yountville, St. Helena, Calistoga, Vallejo, Bay Area Ridge Trail and San Francisco Bay Trail have all contributed to the project.
With these grants and support, there is still a need for $12.5 Million in local funding. This is coming from private donations, which McMinn said, “Is a challenge, but not impossible. The audience we are talking to is both users and donors, who understand the significance of the path. We point out that people only have to invest once, to get it built, and it will be here for 100 years.” Individual donations are used to leverage even more grants. Investment in the Vine Trail will ultimately mean more revenue in the county. “The path will generate $150 million in tourist dollars annually,” said McMinn.
Recently, the project gave birth to the Rail Arts District (RAD), a 1.7 mile section of the Vine Trail along the Wine Train tracks that is being transformed with murals painted on the sides of buildings. “People who are interested in public art are able to donate funding to develop that as well,” said McMinn.
Sales said another unusual aspect of the project is the partnering of a nonprofit with public entities. “This is new and territory. People have little experience with it,” Sales explained.
Despite the hurdles, both men are confident the trail will be a success. Kate Miller, Executive Director of the NVTA, thinks it already is. There are now twelve continuous miles of path, from Kennedy Park to Yountville. “In only a few months, 20,000 people have been on that section,” she said. “People appreciate its presence.” Miller sees it as a safe network that residents can use to walk and bike to school again. It’s also good for health – several years ago, Napa was identified as having the highest obesity rate in the Bay Area, and one of the highest in the state. Access to safe biking/walking can only help lower that.
The organizers are planning for year around trail maintenance, which McMinn said was originally projected to cost $12,000 per mile per year. The Vine Trail is committed to providing half of that with the municipalities providing the rest. “The goal is to have one group doing the maintenance on the whole trail, which will drive the annual cost way down,” said McMinn.
The Napa Valley Vine Trail is estimated to be completed in 2021. People wishing to donate to the Vine Trail can visit vinetrail.org and make a $47 investment, or one dollar per mile, or any amount they wish. Make a donation, share in the vision, and get ready to ride and walk in safety.