FORT BRAGG, 3/10/23 — Twenty-two small apartments are emerging from what used to be the Colombi Motel, courtesy of Chico developer Ryan McDougal. It’s a promising sign for housing-starved Fort Bragg, but is another step away from an old Fort Bragg fondly remembered by many.
The Colombi family owned the block around Harold and Oak streets over the past century. So much so that the laundromat, motel and store always got their mail at the store, and developer McDouglal had to establish an address, 638 East Oak Street, for the new project he calls the Abalone Apartments. County records indicate the sale price was $1.65 million dollars; the deal was closed Feb. 1. He’s hoping to open up rentals this year, but probably not before summer.
McDougal says he’s delighted to restore local and motel history while working with the Colombi family. The building was still being used as a motel when McDougal purchased it. The Colombi Motel was built in 1955 and looks like it could have been along Route 66, with the unique carport and courtyard design of that day, designed as part of the postwar domestic car travel craze. The number of motels in America hit an all time high in 1964, declining slowly but steadily until about 2011, when the trend reversed and motel numbers skyrocketed again, according to statistics from several sources including IBISWorld, which tracks industrial trends. In the 1960s, motels were mostly mom and pop operations and each was unique, often absurdly so, but offering accommodations inside meant to delight. Today most motels are run by chains.
“The architecture is incredible,” McDougal said. “And the Colombis have really kept it in great shape all these years.” He said the city has been “amazing” to work with. Thirteen of the units came with a kitchen, something modern motels don’t have, but a big plus for McDougal. The non-kitchen units involve more work. McDougal said the city required him to create outside locked storage units for each unit.
“It makes sense to require storage space for smaller units….. I’m working with the city to get these kitchens in,” McDougal said. He says the city made the process go smoothly, and now he is waiting on inspections from the county. The units are 350 square feet for the smallest and 550 square feet for the family units. Because this was a carport motel, a concept popular only in the 1950s and ‘60s, almost every unit comes with its own covered parking space. McDougal says the motel was built with ample bathrooms. He had been looking for a project to do in Fort Bragg, a place he, like so many Chico residents, love to come to.
“I wasn’t really looking for a project this big,” he said.
Rents? McDougal said he wasn’t ready to announce what the rents will be. Mendocino Coast Property Management will be in charge of renting the units when they are ready. McDougal asked people to wait to call about the apartments until a proposed opening date is announced.
Immigrants kept houses and businesses for generations
There is empirical evidence that Fort Bragg was one of the last communities where people kept houses for decades or generations. Up through the early 2000s , the Fort Bragg Unified School District had one of the most stable property bases in the state. Old families really did hold onto much of Fort Bragg longer than in other places. And each time one of those families would finally sell, usually to a relative newcomer, the tax base would rocket upwards to benefit the school district’s income (thanks to Proposition 13). This windfall is no longer much of a factor for the district as old Fort Bragg finally begins to give way to new people. But many remember a self-sufficient and isolated town and a different world.
In the early 1900s, Emanuelle Colombi was a farmworker in a small Italian town but he was taken by the promise of the American dream, like so many people in the tumultuous cauldron of prewar Europe. He came to America and tried many places across the US and Canada before falling in love with the redwoods and the little town of Fort Bragg. Italians, Portuguese and Finns populated the town, putting their shoulders to the jobs of fishing, logging and owning and creating businesses. Colombi enlisted in World War I and then went to Italy to bring back his wife, Serafina and his son, Robert, finally settling down in 1923. But before he left Europe for good, he brought his beloved American wonder, redwood trees, back to his hometown. At least one massive redwood tree is now a tourist attraction in Cittanova, Italy. (It’s at the end of this travel blog)
Serafina and Emanuelle became leaders in the Fort Bragg community, their neighborhood barony starting in 1933 when they opened Sun-Brite Market at the corner of Oak and Harold. Old recorder books are full of their transactions, such as one in 1951 when they sold land to the local school district at a bargain, land that was later used by Fort Bragg Unified School District to create several facilities.The motel was built by the couple in 1955. They bought an old feed store known for its baby chicks and made that into the laundromat. Somewhere along the line, Sun-Brite became Colombi’s Market. The Colombi grandchildren now run the store: Robert, Jeanette and Marissa Colombi have said they will keep the store and laundromat, although there is a possibility it might be run on a lease basis in the future.
Colombi Market’s walls display colorful pictures of the original owners and images of the three Colombi brothers who enlisted in World War II. The store continues to be the heart of the neighborhood, offering not just famed deli sandwiches and standard convenience store fare, but a full range of competitively priced groceries from household products to meats and produce.
Recently, most of the Colombi business transactions have involved selling real property: the house on MacPherson Street that once housed Big Brothers-Big Sisters to Daniel Sau Fu Mu, Chwen Lim and the Mu Lim trust for about $775,000. The Colombis also recently sold Highway 1 frontage property across from Ananse Village to Micah D. Ries, Jamie Ries, Kevin Waddell, and Cristen Redfield for about $125,000. It’s a rare piece of Highway 1 frontage not used for business and remains covered in forest. There was also another more recent transaction among family members.
Oak Street blossomed as an Italian neighborhood in the first 50 years of the 20th century. Many of the early Fort Bragg hotels were owned by Italians, but most of those were multi-story structures that burned down at some point.
Other nearby Italian-owned businesses included The Milano (still in business but only as a bar), Coast, Lucca, Franklin, Oaks, and Piedmont hotels; Pat’s (bar), Incerti, Little Paul’s, Maffini, B & C Grocery (still in business), Pacific Grocery, Galli’s Market, Matuizzo (shoe repair), Ghiossi (shoe repair), Cousin Inn, Andreis (Union Garage), and “Toots” Barbershop.
Another of Fort Bragg’s best known Italian families, the Carines, recently sold their closed eatery in Noyo Harbor to The Noyo Center. County records show that the Bessie and Thomas Carine Trust sold the property for $700,000 to The Noyo Center for Marine Science. The new Slack Tide Cafe run by the ocean nonprofit carries a tribute to the Carine family and the many years Bessie “Mama” Carine cooked for and entertained townspeople and tourists with impromptu gifts from the kitchen, accompanied by her famous storytelling. The Noyo Center has been one of the most active institutions in acquiring property, now with three locations. Local philanthropist Donna Worster made an important land donation and the city of Fort Bragg facilitated getting the Noyo Center set up on the Noyo Headland property and downtown.
Italian immigrants quickly became big names in fishing and Bay Area politics, often establishing businesses in both Fort Bragg and on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The Alioto, Tarantino and Caitos were among them, with the Caito family still running businesses in both places. The Rossi family was one of Fort Bragg’s business creators and property owners and remains so today. Recently, they sold or long-term leased land on Highway 1 to create the new garbage transfer center at the Virgin Creek pullout. Amadeo Giannini’s Bank of Italy made a public splash when it came to inland Mendocino County and Fort Bragg in the 1920s, offering new kinds of loans that immigrants could utilize. Bank of Italy then became Bank of America, which sold its building and shrunk its once important presence down to an ATM outlet outside Harvest Market in the Boatyard Shopping Center, as the global banking business bypassed small-town America for multinational money projects from the 1980s onward.