“I love to see this old run-down shopping center bursting with life," said Maddie Hoover, pausing at Bel Aire Plaza in north Napa recently.
"It used to be a dreary place where I would just get what I needed and head back home,” added Hoover, a Napa native who has almost a half century of memories of the changes in her hometown.
“I’m not going to lie and say I don’t miss some of the old times. It was nice to be able to go to Montgomery Ward and get household stuff,” she said.
“But it wasn’t as fun as sitting here people watching in front of Peet’s Coffee and drinking this latté. The old had to give way to the new. It’s what most people want.”
Craig Semmelmeyer, principal of Main Street Properties which manages Bel-Aire, remembers when the business took management of the plaza nine years ago.
“It certainly wasn’t anything like it is today. There were a number of independent retailers,” Semmelmeyer said.
“The only chain stores were Ralph’s (grocery,) Longs (drug store,) Montgomery Ward and JoAnn Fabrics and Crafts. There was also a fish (aquarium) store, the Vintage Bank, a couple of restaurants, Papa John’s pizza and a bowling alley.”
The only two sole-owner businesses that still remain today in Bel Aire are Villa Corona and Barber Shop of Napa Valley, which has been sold to Napa-based Headfeathers.
Orchard Supply Hardware is also a holdover from the old days when there was also a Blockbuster Video in Bel Aire.
The shopping center has had a major facelift and identity shift, with new tenants such as Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Target, Copperfield’s Books, Pharmaca, World Market (Cost Plus) and restaurants BarBersQ and Firewood Café.
There's also Pet Food Express, which is partnering with the Napa County Animal Shelter to open a cat adoption center Saturday, Oct. 27 at 11 a.m.
“It was a huge project when we took over,” Semmelmeyer said. “A lot of people forget and many don’t know how ugly this place used to be. We planned the project carefully selecting tenants we believed would thrive here and give shoppers what they want.”
Paul Elias, departing owner of Barber Shop of Napa Valley, remembers well the old-time plaza well.
“The old Bel Aire Plaza was a seedy shopping center when I came here 10 years ago. There were a lot of empty stores. Almost all of the businesses were mom-and-pop operations,” Elias said.
“Most all of them had homemade business signs. There sure wasn’t anything professional about the center. Most of the owners had not done any upgrades.”
Elias was drawn to the center because he knew changes were on the horizon.
“The Montgomery Ward building was empty. I knew Target owned the property, so I figured a Target would mostly be coming to the center,” he said. “I also heard that Trader Joe’s was in the making. So I figured that would bring a lot of foot traffic going past my shop.”
What Elias didn’t count on was Main Street Properties taking over and setting down “guidelines,” he said.
“I understand why they have to do that, but for a sole proprietor, doing everything by the book can be costly.”
However, Elias has high praise for Main Street Properties.
“They have done a great job. Just look at the center, it’s busy and full of shoppers.”
Semmelmeyer said Main Street Properties is always looking for new ways to improve Bel-Aire.
“Our biggest headache is parking. I know we have traffic congestion,” he said. “We are looking at ways to expand the parking area.”
Larry Henry, 66, of Napa agrees.
“I really like this place. But it’s a pain in the butt to find parking,” he said.
“I know change is inevitable, but I miss the old stores, especially Montgomery Ward. Stores like Wards and Sears are almost an American tradition.
"Everyone went there for everything," Henry continued. "Remember when you were a kid getting the Ward and Sears catalog at Christmas time. We spent hours going through the books picking out what we wanted for Christmas. Now it’s all done on the Internet.”
What Bel Aire businesses do you remember? Which ones do you miss? Tell us in the comments.
Click the "Keep me posted" button for automatic updates when we publish news about Bel Aire Plaza. For more, please see:
- Napa Copperfield's is Moving
- Bel-Aire Plaza Undergoing More Changes
- Bel Aire Mystery Solved: Chico's is Coming to Napa
- Caffino Coffee Drive-Through Evicted in Napa
- Bel Aire Barber Shop Changes Hands
- Bel Aire Plaza Recruits New Tenants
- What Do You Want to See at Bel Aire Plaza?