Monday, August 29, 2005

Vacaville's Nut Tree's future: 'Dream big' for big memories

Article Launched: 08/28/2005 07:59:20 AM

Nut Tree's future: 'Dream big' for big memories

By Steve Huddleston

Most of us awoke Friday morning with a recollection of something the day before that seemed like a dream. Reading the front-page headline, "Nut Tree's new era begins," prodded some to pinch themselves to make sure it was real.

Yes, it was. Ceremonial golden shovels, the hard hats, mini-crates of peaches, lemonade and red-checkered tablecloths. Most imaginative were the architect's renderings of what might spring from the soil in the next 12 months on land that for the last 10 years has pretty much gone to seed.

And there was Ali Snell's portrayal of Helen Harbison Power. It was Mrs. Power, along with husband Edward, best known by his nickname "Bunny," who started it all selling figs on the roadside back in 1921. Ali gave a living history lesson to those who attended.

"A new tree grows in Vacaville," promised the invitation to the ground-breaking festivities at midday Thursday. "When completed, the project will feature 360,000 square feet of offices, seven acres of parks, including a bocce grove and a family amusement park with rides, games, activities and, of course, the famous Nut Tree Railroad."

Why should we believe that the latest permutation will succeed?

First and foremost, the passion for the project is evident in each of the project's key players, beginning with Ali's dad, Roger. That's not been seen in the impostors who came before him.

The new godfather of the Nut Tree wants to create a new landmark for Vacaville and for California. It must be, he said, "a community within a community, where people can live, work, shop, dine and play."

His mission, he said, is rooted in history. His vision is a "special gathering place, a bright spot along the highway that is as much a playground for adults as it is for children." He added, "Our hope is that the positive energy that will flow from this exciting project will create heartfelt memories for millions of future Nut Tree visitors."

But one would expect the primary developer to be nothing but ebullient about his project. But his zeal has cascaded over the rest of those who have become believers in the new Nut Tree. Even the money guys.

Bob Gray is Rockwood Capital Corp.'s point man on the project. His firm is a privately held real estate investment company known for choosing first-rate ventures. Even he had a Nut Tree story from his earlier days and during the course of analyzing this deal he became one with the vision.

He called it a "special" deal.

Rick Capretta, whose Westrust Ventures will build the retail shops, restaurants and core portions of the new Nut Tree, was inspired two years ago when he began discussing with Roger Snell what this thing was all about. "You walked out of that meeting with Roger and you said, 'Wow, he's really optimistic about the Nut Tree,"' said Capretta, who has become a disciple. "Two years later, and people are saying that about me."

Of course, the dream described by Roger Snell is embraced by thousands of those of us who grew up with the original Nut Tree. After riding the train ourselves as children, we brought our children there to ride for the first time. And we put them on the hobby horses and snapped more photographs than we really needed.

Perhaps this is unfair to have such high expectations and place so much pressure on Snell & Co. But if anyone can make this dream come true after so long a wait, the man who said "we like to dream big" seems like the man who can do it.

The author is publisher of The Reporter. E-mail:

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