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Copia Undergoing Another Overhaul

Napa's center for food, wine and the arts is selling land and shedding employees to help overcome massive debt

Tim Fish
Posted: October 18, 2006

Five years after opening its doors and following repeated reorganizations, Copia: The American Center for Food, Wine and the Arts in Napa remains in dire financial straits and is undergoing its most dramatic restructuring to date. It's facing what Copia president Arthur Jacobus called a "monstrous" debt of $68 million.

Conceived by vintner Robert Mondavi in 1988, Copia opened with great fanfare in November 2001. While Mondavi's vision of a unique and interactive museum dedicated to food, wine and the arts may have been realized, Copia never caught the imagination of the public.

To survive, the center is selling nearly half of its land, laying off about one-third of its staff and converting 13,000 square feet of art-exhibit space to conference facilities. The goal is to save about $4 million annually and allow Copia to operate in the black in 2007 with a budget goal of $10.5 million, Jacobus said.

The end result of all this change is a new focus on wine, and to some degree food, but significantly less emphasis on arts. "After five years, we have discovered along the way that being more and more wine-centric is much more appropriate," Jacobus said.

The art gallery and the interactive museum Forks in the Road will close sometime in the future. "Art will be much more casual exhibits … and we will have more emphasis on film and concerts," Jacobus said. And 28 of Copia's 85 employees were given notice this week, most of whom worked in administration and exhibits. "Our wine and food staff remains intact," he added, and Copia's highly regarded restaurant, Julia's Kitchen, will also remain largely unchanged.

The restructuring plans also call for selling 5 acres of land located directly across First Street from Copia. The land now contains Copia's auxiliary parking lot, south garden and outdoor demonstration kitchen; the latter two will find a new home on the remaining Copia property, Jacobus said. Negotiations are underway with a developer who is interested in building a complex that will include an upscale hotel, retail shops, restaurants and, possibly, condominiums. The new complex would complement Copia, Jacobus said, drawing business to the center's classes, festivals and planned conference space.

Jacobus declined to name the developer or say how much Copia expects to make on the sale. However, "The cash from that will allow us to pay down our debt," he said. "We were spending about $5 million annually to service the debt."

The proposed development in Copia's south garden is in addition to two other hotels planned nearby, including a 160-suite Westin that will open in the fall of 2008 and a possible Ritz-Carlton that's in an early stage of development, Jacobus said. In addition, the Oxbow District complex broke ground just west of Copia in September. The centerpiece of that project is Oxbow Market, a public market à la San Francisco's Ferry Building that will feature 30 local food and wine purveyors.

The latest moves mark at least the third major restructuring at Copia, which has struggled since its debut. It didn't help that tourism waned in the aftermath of Sept. 11, but Copia's location in downtown Napa is also well off the well-traveled wine routes, and the tourism-related developments planned around Copia have been slow to materialize. Plus, supporters and critics alike have complained that Copia's concept is just too broad and that the public didn't know what to make of it.

When Jacobus was hired in July 2005, he knew drastic change might be in store. "The concept of how to deal with all of this was on my mind when I came," Jacobus said, "but it took me a while to tinker with the ambitions and the programming and the admission price to get to this point."

In the past year, attendance and revenue has increased 25 percent, thanks in part to lowering the admission price from $12.50 to $5. Still, Jacobus said, attendance averages about 160,000 a year, well below the original projections of 300,000. And while Copia spent years reworking its focus, the center was quickly draining its endowment of $55 million and doing little to reduce the $70 million debt incurred to open the facility.

Two things were clear, Jacobus said: Copia could never fundraise itself out of debt, and its biggest asset was its land. Many of Copia's benefactors were reluctant to sell the land at first, particularly board members Mondavi, his wife, Margrit, and daughter, Marcia, "… but they understood the problems facing Copia," Jacobus said. "Margrit and Marcia have been intimately involved in all of the deliberations. We're dedicated to maintaining the vision that Robert had."

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