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Expand Inn? Be Our Guest, Residents Say

Ojai Valley: Resort's $60-million upgrade would add jobs and boost tax revenue for the community, which has been wary of many building projects.

October 08, 2002|GAIL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Environmentally sensitive Ojai is not known for embracing development.

But ever since the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa first proposed a $60-million expansion, one of the largest development projects in recent city history, there has been little public opposition.

One reason is that the family-owned inn remains Ojai's largest employer and chief source of revenue. The proposed expansion would boost the resort's work force to about 700, double the $1 million in annual taxes paid to the city and help increase tourism.

That is welcome news for the city and local merchants.

Competition with swanky resorts in neighboring Santa Barbara is driving the inn to add more $300-a-night rooms, said Thad Hyland, managing director. About 60,000 guests visit each year.

The 80-year-old mission-style inn is nestled along the Ojai Valley floor and surrounded by majestic oaks and spectacular mountain views. The picturesque setting has long made it a popular refuge for celebrities, from Bing Crosby to Barbra Streisand.

The City Council will consider the proposal during its meeting tonight.

Although the development project would fell trees, encroach on wetlands and bring unwanted traffic, environmentalists have not exactly come out in force against it. They acknowledge the resort's importance to the community.

"We see it as a vital part of maintaining Ojai," said Ivor Benci-Woodward, president of the environmental group Citizens to Preserve the Ojai. But his group remains concerned about increased traffic.

Hyland said the inn encourages employees to carpool and use local bus service to help reduce traffic. Service trucks will also be directed to an entrance south of downtown to avoid congestion there.

Plans also call for enhancing wetlands located near the new construction site by removing non-native eucalyptus and planting hundreds of new oaks. The development would also require a new traffic light at the intersection of Hermosa Road and California 150, which many residents welcome.

The town's taste for debate has settled more on which aspect of expansion would benefit Ojai most.

Barbara Bowman, who owns three high-end clothing stores in Ojai, says inn guests tend to be well-traveled and big-spenders. So having more of them frequenting local businesses can only be good, she said.

Even a rival spa welcomes the expansion. Sheila Cluff, owner of the Oaks at Ojai Spa, said the inn's hefty marketing budget benefits the whole city. "We could never begin to get the exposure that they give," Cluff said.

The one significant downside of the 14-month project is that it would temporarily shrink the inn to about 60 rooms.

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