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California and the West

Differing Visions of Future Pose Challenge for Guerneville

Tourism: Floods and AIDS both have taken toll in area long known for gay resorts. Some foresee a budding Carmel; others want to broaden family appeal.


GUERNEVILLE, Calif. — They agree on pretty much one thing out here along the Russian River, a stunning but snake-bit stretch of Sonoma County nestled between the wine country and the sea.

No one in this resort region wants the world to think of their hometown the way it looks on the news most winters--drowning under raging flood waters, buried beneath landslides, piled high with storm debris.

After that, however, all bets are off. Particularly now.

For the first time in 101 years as a tourist destination, the good people of the Lower Russian River are banding together to plan themselves a future, and there are about as many visions as there are residents.

"The River" is still one of the top 10 gay summer resort areas in the world, even after the AIDS virus savaged many hotel owners along with their clientele. The epidemic is abating, but questions remain about whether the gay heyday of the 1980s will be back to revive a flagging economy--and just how welcome a new generation of muscle boys might be here.

With its tall redwoods and ample campsites, this also has long been an affordable enclave, a sort of blue-collar summer home for middle-class Northern California. But with each flood has come a rush of renovation money, and many local innkeepers are working hard at going upscale, pricing the past right out of the future.

Normally dissent is not a concern in a region that shelters loggers and bikers, gays and lesbians, farmers, aging hippies and disenchanted urban dwellers looking for peace, quiet and a nice glass of Chardonnay.

But as they cobble together a blueprint for tomorrow, the 7,000 or so inhabitants of the struggling little towns along the lower stretches of this wide waterway are trying to figure out just who will be most welcome here if and when the region finally reinvents itself.

They wonder as they press for redevelopment money, as they enlist Vice President Al Gore in their efforts, as they try to plot a strategy for tourism: How precious can gritty Guerneville get?

How gay will its future be? Where do families fit in? Can one small region be home, say, to a clothing-optional resort for gay men, where registering guests are greeted with a basket of condoms, and a bed and breakfast that hosts family reunions--all within walking distance?

"There are resorts that cater entirely to the gay community and want that to come back. There are resorts that have nothing to do with the gay community, and they want more families. We are more upscale, and all we want are rich people. We don't care what they are," says A. Darryl Notter, who owns the graceful Applewood Inn with longtime partner James Caron and believes Guerneville "could be another Carmel."

But only over a few dead bodies.

Attorney Barbara Barrett, executive director of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce, sees the Guerneville of the future as a destination prized for its "magical natural beauty."

"There's a casual ambience you can't get other places," says this transplanted lesbian from San Francisco, who heads up what passes for government here. "I see it keeping the flavor, not becoming another Carmel."

Residents Feel Economic Pinch

For now, the specter of that hoity-toity hamlet is just that. Notter and Caron have little trouble filling their $275-a-night suites. But the hills surrounding their establishment are filled with rickety cabins designed for summer campers, not the hard-pressed residents who live in them year-round.

An estimated 51% of the children attending elementary school in Guerneville and nearby Monte Rio are eligible for federal free lunch programs. The housing stock needs to be brought up to code, the roads repaired, the sewer system expanded.

"We have had four presidentially declared disasters in three years," says Bob Young, the gay owner of a coffeehouse who heads up the region's new economic development task force. "I don't know of any other community that's had everything pulled out from under it--AIDS, flooding, the recession."

Although life hasn't always been quite this tough in what used to be known as Stumpville, Calif., "the metamorphosis of this town is tremendous," says John C. Schubert, local historian and sheriff's deputy.

Tourism took off in the late 1800s after early loggers clear-cut the ancient redwoods and sold off land for vacation development. Railroads brought in a steady stream of day-trippers traveling north to see the remaining big trees.

Until the mid-1920s, when a forest fire ravaged the area. And the 1930s, when the Depression hit. A turnaround began late in that decade and continued through the war years, when the big bands were a regular fixture along the river.

"You had the likes of Ozzie Nelson, Phil Harris, Harry James," Schubert says. "'The people from San Francisco's Mission district came--the Irish, the Germans, the Italians. This was for the middle class. If you were rich, you went to Lake Tahoe."

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