The foundation of a community

From a Napa Valley Register article updated on March 29th, 2017 by the Napa Valley Register Editorial Board, which consists of Publisher Brenda Speth, Editor Sean Scully, and public members Cindy Webber, Ed Shenk, Mary Jean Mclaughlin and Chris Hammaker.

Erecting a bunch of buildings and calling it a “city” is easy. Assembling a bunch of people and calling it a “community” is an entirely different matter.

What constitutes a healthy “community” is difficult to say precisely, but certainly a key element is a willingness of its members to help one another — from acts of heroism and large-scale philanthropy down to routine daily interactions, volunteering, serving, even just smiling and greeting. It is the routine acts of casual charity that define what it means to be “us.”

The Napa Valley Register Editorial Board met this week with Joe Fischer of the Gasser Foundation and we were struck at the degree to which this very spirit seems to animate the work of this organization, which over the last three decades has dramatically transformed the look of south Napa and changed the way people in the whole region live.

To understand why, though, it is necessary to take a step back.

It is a good bet that most of our readers have heard of the Gasser Foundation. After all, it is the organization responsible for the South Napa Marketplace, home of Target, Home Depot, Raley’s and other stores. Lately, it has been responsible for the rapid growth of the adjacent South Napa Century Center, home to the 12-screen Cinemark movie theater, a health club, hotel, and a growing collection of restaurants and retail shops.

But it’s also a good bet that many readers have no idea what the Gasser Foundation is and why it does business as it does.

The story starts a century ago, as young Peter Gasser left his family farming business and broke into the world of business, starting first with the Bank of Italy, now known as Bank of America, and later moving to his own auto dealership, Gasser Motors. He married a young Napa widow named Vernice “Pat” Wilson. They were enormously successful in business in Napa from the 1930s until their deaths in the 1980s.

But they did more than make money. They gave back to their community in cash, time, and vision. Many of their accomplishments stand today, including Queen of the Valley hospital, which they were active in founding. Peter had many causes, including revitalizing the city Chamber of Commerce, funding Justin-Siena High School, and pushing for widening Highway 29 and the construction of the Butler Bridge and Napa airport. Pat was a founding member of Community Projects, a trustee for the Queen of the Valley Hospital Foundation, and a prolific volunteer.

Peter died in 1982 and Pat followed him in 1989. They had no children, so they decided to endow a foundation to continue their vision of service and community building. But unlike most family foundations, which are built on cash or assets such as stocks, the Gassers’ foundation was rich in land, primarily a huge swath of riverside land at the intersection of Imola and Soscol avenues south of downtown Napa.

Because federal rules require charitable foundations to spend a percentage of their value annually for good causes, the trustees of the new Peter A. & Vernice H. Gasser Foundation found themselves looking for ways to raise cash to meet their obligations. That meant selling, leasing, or developing the huge property bequeathed to them by the Gassers.

They could have built anything. But instead of building the biggest and most profitable possible developments, the trustees, led by President Joe Peatman, have tried to apply the Gasser’s vision of sustainable, resident-focused business.

The result? Well-thought-out, strategic development that gives locals places to shop or go to a movie without having to drive to Fairfield or Vacaville. They drew affordably priced restaurants that appeal to locals. They have deliberately attracted local-serving businesses that might have been priced out of a for-profit development. They have given small businesses lease terms that might be impossible in conventional commercial properties. The foundation has put a focus on affordable family-sized housing that would not be viable for for-profit builders.

They are that rare kind of philanthropy: an entrepreneurial charity.

The foundation has used the resulting profits from its developments to fund important but often unheralded causes: the Serenity Homes for people recovering from addiction; Nightingale Respite Center for homeless patients to recover from major medical procedures; Voices, a support center for youths in the foster care system, and others.

The foundation has grown from giving away around $600,000 per year in its early years to around $2 million per year today, Fischer said, and it will be somewhere around $4 million annually after all the remaining Gasser property is built out by about the year 2020, 30 years after it started its journey.

As a board we were already aware of most of the good work of the Gasser Foundation, but in meeting with Fischer and researching the history of Peter and Pat, we were struck by the way that the trustees have carried on the founders’ vision of cheerful, local-serving work for their home town.

Peter and Pat Gasser, and the foundation that bears their name, embody the kind of every-day giving that turns a jumble of buildings into a living community.

Read the article on the Napa Valley Register site