Friday, October 07, 2005

Nut Tree's New Era Begins

Article Launched: 08/26/2005 06:43:00 AM

Nut Tree's New Era Begins
By Tom Hall/Staff Writer

Chief developer Roger Snell hands a ceremonial shovel to Vacaville Mayor Len Augustine at the site of the new Nut Tree. (Joel Rosenbaum/The Reporter)

Carol Yount discovered the Nut Tree in 1967, when she was hired as a management secretary at the restaurant complex.

She spent 22 years at the old landmark, writing out correspondence for the founding Power family and becoming a part of the close-knit, extended Nut Tree clan.

Thursday, she got to revisit the site and see a lot of familiar faces.

"When I got out of the car, the tears came streaming out of my eyes," Yount said. "Just being able to walk the grounds - it's so emotional."

Thursday marked a new chapter for the fabled Nut Tree, as work on rebuilding the California landmark officially began with a ground-breaking ceremony.

A bevy of developers, city officials and nostalgic Vacaville residents gathered at the site of the old Nut Tree just before noon to look at plans for the redevelopment project, chat with old friends and turn some dirt.

Ali Snell, 17, the daughter of Nut Tree developer Roger Snell, portrays founder Helen Harbison Power at her fruit stand.

Mayor Len Augustine called the rebirth of the Nut Tree the biggest redevelopment project the city has ever undertaken.

"Here we are today when people thought it was mission impossible," Augustine told dozens of onlookers huddled under a canopy of trees. "This is the future of Vacaville."

The massive project includes a family amusement park with a roller coaster, bumper cars and the famous Nut Tree train; a 380,000-square-foot retail and dining complex, with Borders, Best Buy and PetSmart already confirmed as anchors; eight bocce courts and an open-air market pavilion.

Future phases call for townhomes, a conference center and perhaps two full-service hotels.

The original Nut Tree closed in January 1996. Numerous attempts to reopen the landmark since have failed. The city eventually purchased 80 acres of the property for $7.5 million in 2000.

The city is now finalizing its sale of that acreage to developer Nut Tree Associates.

Roger Snell, the master developer for the project who first approached the city in 2002, said once completed, the Nut Tree again will be a bright spot along the highway, catering to both children and adults.

Rick Capretta, whose Westrust Ventures is heading the retail and dining segment of the project, said Snell's enthusiasm for the Nut Tree drew him in two years ago.

"You walked out of that meeting with Roger and you said, 'Wow, he's really optimistic about the Nut Tree,' " Capretta said. "Two years later, and people are saying that about me."

Roy Moerkhe, who spent more than three decades working for the Nut Tree in retail purchasing and display, said he's thrilled that work is getting started.

"This is huge," Moerkhe said. "We've just been waiting for this for so long."

Moerkhe will be involved in helping the Vacaville Museum restore the Harbison House to its 1907 grandeur once it's moved about 800 feet to the northeast, where it will serve as a centerpiece for the family park.

Museum director Shawn Lum, donning a white hardhat emblazoned with the ubiquitous Nut Tree logo, said she was ready to get started restoring the historic home, which was built in 1907 and housed several generations of Powers.

"Let's go, let's get at it!" she laughed, weaving through the crowd.

Snell's daughter, Ali, helped remind visitors what high expectations the project would be held to. She stood next to a mock-up of the old Nut Tree fruit stand at which Helen Harbison Power first peddled her snacks in 1921.

Fresh peaches rested in small wooden crates at the stand, while Ali Snell told inquiring minds the history of the landmark. Just as was seen at Power's old stand, an American flag waved gently in the breeze nearby.

Yount, now a secretary for City Manager David Van Kirk, pointed out that it was the little details that brought back the memories: the checkered tableclothes, the fresh flowers all around, the breeze whistling through the shade-giving trees.

"It just makes you feel like the magic is back," she said.

Tom Hall can be reached at

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