Although it shares a name with the ritzy wine-making region, the City of Napa has long been a mostly blue collar city with only weak links to the big-dollar wine and tourism industries. But downtown Napa, home to professional offices and mom-and-pop stores that close before dark, is about to become a player in the business of wine tourism, which brings 5 million visitors a year to Napa Valley. Legendary winemaker Robert Mondavi chose a 12-acre site on the eastern edge of downtown Napa for the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, a $50 million facility that organizers believe will attract at least 300,000 visitors a year. Other commercial activity in and near downtown includes: the opening this fall of a visual arts school for high-school age students, development of a convention center and hotel on the former Town & Country Fairgrounds, conversion of a 100-year-old industrial building into a waterfront retail market and spa, and the restoration of an 1879-era opera house. Clearly, the American Center is the cornerstone project. Mondavi, the man most responsible for Napa Valley's elite ranking in the wine world, is the chief financial backer. Other private investors are also contributing money to the center, which is a nonprofit entity, said Kurt Nystrom, deputy director for finance and operations. "We really think this is going to revitalize downtown," Nystrom said. "Here are these 5 million people driving by on Highway 29. Now we're going to get hundreds of thousands of them to turn off the highway and drive through town to get to the center," Cassandra Walker, the city's redevelopment and economic development director, agreed. "It's a significant impact for the city, which is trying to create a cultural and arts center downtown. It shows a commitment to downtown," Walker said. Downtown revitalization is not a new topic in Napa. The city created a 33-block downtown redevelopment area in 1969, demolished older buildings to make way for box-like retail stores and built an awkward parking garage, Walker said. Downtown hardly boomed, even though the small, "upvalley" cities of Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga, 10 to 25 miles north of Napa, cashed in on the growing wine industry and tourist trade. Yountville, for example, gets half of its general fund revenues from transient occupancy tax. The American Center "is saying that downtown is part of the tourist economy," Walker said. The opera house renovation, which is near commencement after years of fund raising, is another asset. "That provides an ongoing entertainment center for traveling theatrical productions that we haven't had before. That really benefits locals as well as tourists who want something to do at night," she said. Walker and others hope tourists will tie a day of cultural events in downtown Napa with a visit to upvalley wineries. One catalyst for downtown Napa's renaissance is a massive flood control project that will remake the Napa River. The river flooded portions of downtown in 1995, 1996 and, to a lesser degree, 1998. In response, voters approved a half-cent sales tax that partially funds a $180 million Army Corps of Engineers' river project. (See CP&DR, May 1998.) Much of the river through downtown Napa is now obscured, but the project will open up the waterfront. And a six-mile bike trail along the river will provide public access all through town, said Heather Stanton, the city's project manager. "I think there will be more opportunities for restaurants and retail as a result," Stanton said. The City of Napa does not have the money to provide substantial commercial development subsidies, Walker said, but the American Center required few for a project of its size. Under the development agreement with the American Center, the city will provide about $1 million worth of improvements, such as underground utilities, landscaping and signs, she said. The center received an extended period to complete the project, for which ground broke in June. A grand opening is scheduled for Thanksgiving of 2001. The American Center will be built on a 12-acre oxbow that offers river frontage on three sides. Plans call for an 80,000-square-foot building and extensive outdoor displays. The center will explain the cultural and societal influence of wine and food in America, Nystrom said. The center will host seminars and touring art exhibitions. Proponents also plan a 150-room hotel nearby. While the American Center has actually begun construction, development likely will be more extensive at the old Town & Country Fairgrounds, now called Napa Valley Expo. The state Legislature last year authorized the fairgrounds to lease the 34-acre site to a nonprofit organization for private development. That organization, Friends of the Napa Valley Exposition, expects to hire a development partner this month, said expo consultant John Salmon. The eventual project, which must be self-supporting, will include a 350-room hotel and conference center, retail spaces and a demonstration farm. Development of a tourist reception center, performing arts spaces and an education center are also possible. Community events and the annual fair will continue on the site. Part of the impetus for the project is a desire to keep tourists from trampling the valley, where bumper-to-bumper traffic is the weekend norm. The expo could serve as a base for taking groups to into the valley. "It becomes the beginnings of managing visitation to the valley," Salmon said. The huge number of visitors, which grows almost every year, is attracting hotel developers. By one count, 15 projects containing approximately 2,500 rooms are in some phase of the planning process. Nearly all of those hotels are in or near the city of Napa, which has seen little hostelry development in recent years. Smaller merchants also are renewing interest in downtown Napa. For example, an upscale, 140-seat restaurant called Tuscany is scheduled to open this month at First and Main streets, within walking distance of the American Center and of the proposed factory-turned-spa. Not too many years ago, that restaurant would have located in Yountville or St. Helena. "The next 10 years in Napa are going to have the most extensive development the city has ever seen," said Nystrom, of the American Center. "I think it's going to be a city in California to watch." Contacts: Cassandra Walker, Napa Redevelopment/Economic Development Agency, (707) 257-9502. John Salmon, Napa Valley Expo consultant, (707) 333-6010. Kurt Nystrom, American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, (707) 257-3606.