Top Ten Stories of 2017

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The faces of these children anxiously waiting to be the first to play on the new play structure at City Park at the Oct. 15 ribbon cutting celebration reflect the feeling of everyone who pitched in to help make the project happen: It’s all about community. In 30 years, they may be building the next new park. (Photo by Charles Wallace)

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It almost sounds like a retro R&B band: Earth, Water & Fire. But the big stories in Winters in 2017 fall under those elements — Earth, as in much earth was moved in town to make way for new construction; Water — as in the drought seemed to break last winter, almost to the point of overload; and Fire, as in — here we go again.

The big umbrella story for Winters, however, is “construction.” The town seemed like a maze of construction and heavy equipment, particularly along Grant Avenue as multiple projects, from traffic lights (Winters gained two new ones on Grant Avenue) to the massive new PG&E Gas Safety Academy. If summer 2017 had a spirit animal, it would be an orange construction cone, and if the entire year had a spirit animal, it would be a ceremonial golden shovel.

Construction seemed nonstop through summer and fall, and even at the year’s tail end was still wrapping up, with yet more on the way planned for next year. The town is literally changing before our eyes, which will gaze upon a new Starbucks, a new hotel (maybe two) and a new facility for Winters Healthcare in 2018.

Of all the construction that took place in town, however, the project most near and dear to the heart of the entire community was the new wooden playground structure at City Park, which rose from the ground like a volunteer-powered miracle in October.

Besides new construction, there were some innovative new festivities in 2017, including the Coffeefest in March, sponsored by Steady Eddy’s and featuring the Goddess Caffeina, a Women’s Wellness Bazaar just in time for Mother’s Day in May, and the first Guitarfest, showcasing the luthier talents of handmade guitars and stringed instruments in June.

There were also new businesses in Winters this year. In addition to the most obvious, the PG&E Gas Safety Academy, the community saw the old Creekside Bar on Putah Creek Road morph into the new and highly improved Green River Taproom, featuring an impressive menu of beer as well as indoor and outdoor recreation, and Yolo Trader’s Bistro on Main Street, specializing in fresh Sinaloan Mexican cuisine, but served up in handmade crepes. And, although the business isn’t new, the faces are: Pam and Eric Tavenier became the new owners of the Abbey House Inn in 2017.

In the “what’s old but seems new” department for 2017 was rain, and lots of it. Following year after year of crushing drought, rain began falling in the fall of 2016 and continued right on into the new year and beyond. Rain is measured from July 1 to June 30, rather than on a calendar year, and the total rainfall for the 2016-17 year was an impressive 42.46 inches, compared to the prior rainfall year’s 20 inches.

So much water fell from the sky during the last rainfall year that Lake Berryessa filled all the way to the top and then some, spilling into the Glory Hole for the first time in years and becoming the area’s hottest attraction.

New construction, new activities, new businesses and new life from all that rain… but what wasn’t new was fire.

Again.

For the fourth July in a row, the hills west of town were scorched, blanketing the town in thick smoke and blocking out the sun. However, that smoke-storm was puny compared to the smoke that lingered over Winters for weeks as monster fires broke out in Santa Rosa and the Napa Valley in October on an extremely windy night, creating a firestorm that devoured entire neighborhoods and commercial centers, leaving nothing but ash, and taking a tragic toll on human life itself.

But right in the midst of those weeks of smoke, fire and misery over the hills in Napa County, the new playground materialized, serving as a visible reminder that here in Winters, we have much to be grateful for.

Top Ten Stories

1) Build it and they will play. Although the new PG&E Gas Safety Academy on Winters’ front doorstep on Grant Avenue is infinitely larger and more costly than the new wooden playground structure at City Park, Project Playground noses out PG&E as the top story of the year because it exemplifies community spirit. Two young mothers — Emarie VanGalio and Moyra Barsotti — created a team of dedicated people and forged ahead for more than a year to raise both funds and awareness, as well as to rally volunteer help and secure donations. By the time the project broke ground on Oct. 9 , fundraising had exceeded their goals, and in the span of one week, just as was the case for the old Robert Leathers playground built 30 years ago, the playground was finished in one week. Van Galio and Barsotti were rewarded not only by being honored as the 2017 Theodore Winters Award winners, but also by the knowledge that they are responsible for a wonderful new park that generations of Winters children will grow up on and enjoy.

blank2) What a gas. PG&E celebrated the grand opening of its new Gas Safety Academy on Sept. 27, with community members and regional officials in attendance to witness this $80 million state of the art gas training facility’s birth. The complex, which includes indoor classrooms as well as outdoor heavy equipment and “utility village” hand-on training, houses a steady flow of PG&E employees, all focusing on making the gas delivery system for the entire state of California safer. A poignant reminder of the need to focus on gas pipeline safety sits on display in the facility’s foyer: The actual piece of pipeline that exploded in San Bruno in September 2010. This constant flow of employees into town brings us to Number Three on our Top Ten List:

3) Digging it. The promise of a new downtown hotel made the Top Ten List for six years running last year, but at long, long last, Hotel Winters actually broke ground in 2017. Although the project ceremonially broke ground on May 4, developers AKM Railroad LLC proceeded with a seemingly relaxed construction schedule as they and city staff tweaked some of the plans as the project proceeded. By late summer, the project was actually beginning to take shape, with infrastructure going in, and in November steel support beams started rising to support the new star of downtown Winters. Will it sparkle before the planned Fairfield Inn & Suites is completed on Grant Avenue near the Chevron station? Both are expected to be finished in the fall of next year, so in the spirit of town father Theodore Winters, the horse race is on. Find out who won in next year’s Top Ten Stories of 2018.

4) Technically speaking. Ceremonial golden shovels dug into Winters dirt yet again in 2017, this time at Winters High School. On Sept. 7, the Career Tech Center broke ground, becoming the first phase of a $17 million development project paid for by Measure R bond money. The 9,000 square foot facility is situated just east of the old round library building, at the southeast corner of the high school campus, and when completed, will give Winters students an edge for both college and career readiness. Currently under construction with BCA Architects, the $6 million classroom wing is expected to be completed next fall. Other projects planned at the high school in the near future include new music classrooms, a student union and a cafeteria, as well as upgrades to the football field.

5) Rain, rain, don’t go away. It was nice while it lasted, wasn’t it? Maybe too much of a good thing? More than 42 inches of rain in one rainfall year eased drought worries, but whether that will be a false sense of security or not remains to be seen. This year’s current rainfall is lagging behind last year by 5.31 inches, and with no rain forecasted in sight, it appears that the spigot in the sky will be closed through the end of the year. But what an experience it was to see puddles in the curbs, water levels swelling in Putah Creek, post-fire wildflowers bursting out in blankets of color over the green hills in the spring and in particular, the new tourism hotspot, the Monticello Dam, where Number 6 on our Top Ten list can be seen.

6) Glory be. Mid-February drew cars, crowds and even drones as people came from miles around to watch filled-to-the-brim Lake Berryessa teasing with the promise of spilling into the Glory Hole for the first time since 2006. In October 2016, after years of drought, the water level in Lake Berryessa hit its lowest mark, 41.41 feet below the Glory Hole, the top of which had been visible on its bed of a finger of exposed rock for years. When the lake finally spilled over and rushed into Putah Creek on Feb. 17, it kept right on going and reached its second highest level in history on Feb. 21, at 443.6 feet above sea level, spilling at 3.6 feet above the Glory Hole, which is 440 feet above sea level. Monticello Dam became a parking lot as visitors flocked to stare at water swirling into the eery, massive bathtub drain that graces the Winters Express logo if you look closely enough. Downstream, Putah Creek swelled up its banks, and Putah Creek Nature Park briefly became something only the famed Putah Creek salmon could see.

7) Up in smoke… again. With all that rain, we’d think it would make for a gentle fire season for a change, but we’d be wrong. All that rain in 2017 encouraged plenty of thick new growth that dried up into endless fuel by mid-summer. During the lunch hour on July 6, Winters residents saw the sight that strikes fear in their hearts: A plume of fire billowing up from the golden hills west of town — and quickly erupting into a blaze, for the fourth summer in a row and forcing residents in the Golden Bear Estates and surrounding areas to evacuate yet again. Rural Winters got lucky with the so-called Winters Fire, because it was one of the first to harken the beginning of fire season in California. When it broke out, there were plenty of additional Cal Fire and area fire departments to come racing to the rescue. By the time the fire was contained, only one week later at 2,269 acres, fires were beginning to jump up throughout the state like blazing California poppies — but none so devastating as the Atlas and Tubbs Fires in the Napa Valley in October, choking the region with smoke and despair.

The fires were nowhere near contained when a tower of black smoke rose up from a warehouse fire at Dixon Ridge Farms on Oct. 11, destroying the entire structure and all the equipment in it. While residents in the Napa Valley were still stunned by the magnitude of the loss, massive fires in Southern California erupted in December, leaving most Californians wondering if there’s anything left to burn. The fire lesson learned in 2017 is that nowhere is safe from fire in California, even urban areas.

8) He shall be missed. Winters lost some of its most well-known icons in 2017, including Eagle Drug pharmacist Gary Bertagnolli and everyone’s favorite high school janitor, Dale Brewer. But the death that really rocked the community was that of Howard Hupe on July 19. Hupe dedicated his post-retirement years to the betterment and promotion of the Winters community. For decades, Howard was the town’s unofficial spokesperson and concierge, serving for years on the Winters Chamber of Commerce board of directors and participating in key decisions for the economic development of the town over the last couple decades. He, along with his wife Germaine, was also the face of the Winters Theatre Company, serving as one of its founding members and directing 100 plays that graced the Winters stage. The Hupes shared the 1986 Citizen of the Year title, and didn’t rest on those laurels. Howard went on to create The Walking Tour Guide to Historic Winters (and often led walks himself), ushered in “agritourism” in the Winters area by chairing the first Winters Farm Tour program for the Chamber and creating the annual Scarecrow Contest, which livens up the downtown as well as front lawns across town. Hupe leaves a very big volunteer footprint that will take the work of many to fill.

9) Round and round we go. Oh, how people seem to hate that new traffic circle, called a “roundabout,” that was under construction during the late summer and fall at Grant Avenue and Walnut Lane, and open for through-traffic on Dec. 19. The $1,360,777 project, constructed by locally-owned Vintage Paving, was intended to ease traffic congestion at the intersection without installing another regular stoplight so close to the one at Railroad and Grant. Despite several practical reasons for constructing a roundabout rather than adding another traffic light, the announcement of the project’s completion on the Winters Express Facebook wall was met with a hail of scorn. Love it or hate it, the roundabout will now serve as a daily reminder that local residents need to pay attention to what is happening at planning commission and city council meetings, and show up to contribute concerns and feedback at that time, rather than waiting until the project is underway to object. And, of course, that the best way to stay apprised of the issues facing the city is to subscribe to the one and only local newspaper, the Winters Express. Speaking of which…

10) Extra, extra, read all about it. Like the iconic traditional Father Time and Baby New Year, the Winters Express itself is poised for an “out with the old, in with the new” rebirth of sorts as longtime publisher Charles Wallace makes good upon threats to retire and hand the reins of the 134-year-old publication to a new publisher, Taylor Buley, a member of the McNaughton family, which owns a majority interest in the Express and also publishes the Davis Enterprise, Fairfield Daily Republic and Placerville Mountain Democrat. Buley, who additionally serves as the Chief Technical Officer for McNaughton Newspapers, has already contributed new innovations to the Express, such as a new and vastly improved website and increased social media presence, and early in 2017 will become one of Winters’ newest residents. Buley officially becomes the publisher on Jan. 1, marking the first time in 70 years that a Wallace will not be the publisher of the Winters Express. Publisher Emeritus and World’s Oldest Paperboy Newt Wallace took over the Express in January 1947 and remained its publisher until April 1983, when he “retired” (he still comes to the office every day at age 98) and turned the job over to his son, Charley.

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This is how the downtown hotel was progressing as of Tuesday, Dec. 26. These are the steel forms for the structure, sitting on the new foundation. (Photo by Debra DeAngelo)
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