Public Market in Buellton to House Tasting Rooms

As Santa Barbara County gets tough on wine tourism, one town hopes new project will invigorate business

by Jaime Lewis
wine tasting the commons buellton
Anacapa architecture firm designed a spot for consumers to visit high-end food and drink vendors in Buellton, Calif. The project is expected to finish next year.
Buellton, Calif.—In the midst of a challenging season for wine producers looking to open tasting rooms in Santa Barbara County, the city of Buellton is opening its arms to wine-related businesses, in part through its Planning Commission’s unanimous vote to approve The Commons, a public market that includes 16 wine tasting and tap rooms, as well as fine dining and fast-casual restaurants, food and specialty goods retailers, a 6,000-square-foot central lawn and 4,000 square feet of event space. The market is set to break ground this fall and open in summer 2018.

Don Conner is a principal with Coast Development Partners, which is developing The Commons. He reports that all tenants will be local to the Central Coast (which he defines as Ventura to Paso Robles) and says Coast Development Partners already has received signed leases or letters of intent to lease for 80% of The Commons’ 38 spaces.

“The whole position of the development is artisan, craft, higher quality, more sophisticated,” he says, explaining that, consequently, the developers have steered away from national tenants. Coast Development Partners is targeting wineries that produce anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 cases annually, though these limits also include small-production brands that are owned and operated by larger companies.

Long known as a working city among the more touristy towns of Los Olivos and Solvang, Buellton lies at the western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley, at the intersection of two of Santa Barbara County’s major traffic arteries: Highway 101 and Highway 246. The Commons will occupy 5 acres adjacent to the existing Firestone Walker Brewing Co. on McMurray Road as well as a new Hampton Inn & Suites. The Santa Ynez Valley Marriott and an additional hotel development (to be completed in 2018) are nearby, as is the 155-condominium development Vineyard Village. Conner says that, of the Santa Ynez Valley’s 2,000 hotel rooms, 750 of them will be within a 10-minute walk of The Commons.

“Right now, you have within wine country what I would call two daytime social districts: Solvang and Los Olivos,” says Conner. “Solvang now has about 15 or so tasting and tap rooms; Los Olivos has nearly 50. But when you look at both of those daytime social districts come evening, both kind of evaporate, and most of the activity and energy in the valley then transitions to the restaurants; they become the social hubs.”

Conner explains that by offering both tasting and tap rooms in addition to restaurants and retail in one location, The Commons project is set to capitalize on the congregation of day-into-night visitors. He cites Coast Development Partners’ investment in common areas and the city of Buellton’s business-friendly approach (including on- and off-premise licensing as well as full liquor licenses) as security in changing the valley’s social and commercial scene.

“Buellton’s attitude toward business and development is definitely very pro-growth compared with other cities, and certainly with the county,” Conner said. “I think a little bit of that is pure economics: seeing how restrictive it is in the county in general—and how difficult it is for businesses to be successful. The city incorporated 25 years ago, partly to control its own destiny because a lot of tax revenue being generated was not being spent within its own area. They’ve operated as a fairly autonomous group ever since. When you look at Santa Barbara wine country and any development going on, the majority of it’s going on in the city of Buellton.”

Morgen McLaughlin, the outgoing executive director of Santa Barbara Vintners who also sat on Buellton’s Planning Commission, saw the wine side of Buellton’s growth as a result of restrictions presented by the Santa Barbara County Wine Ordinance of 2001, which sought to mitigate the impact of traffic and commerce on a rural region, but consequently pushed producers into clusters of urban tasting rooms like Lompoc’s so-called Wine Ghetto.

“In the beginning people flocked to Lompoc because the rents were cheap, but there are capacity issues that that city is now using to restrict new projects” McLaughlin said in an interview last month, before accepting the executive director position with the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. She went on to posit that multiple tasting rooms from the Lompoc Wine Ghetto are moving to Buellton as a result, a theory that Conner corroborated based on leases and LOIs for The Commons project.

Conner sees planning as a major distinction between The Commons and urban tasting room clusters like the Wine Ghetto and even Tin City in Paso Robles. Coast Development Partners researched and visited more than 30 public markets in the United States and Canada, gaining inspiration from centers like the Oxbow Public Market in Napa, The Shed in Healdsburg, Calif., Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, B.C., The Pybus Public Market in Wenatchee, Wash., (which is in a fairly rural area but sustains a bustling public market) and The Barlow in Sebastopol, Calif.

Conner says that residents of Buellton have been “very positive” about the incoming Commons project.

“They see our strength in numbers,” he said. “A development like this is about critical mass. If you have only a handful of tasting rooms or retailers, there’s not enough draw. What we’re trying to create is really a center of gravity, where someone comes to wine country and they have Los Olivos, our development and Solvang as three destinations they can visit, day or night.”

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