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In the Rush to Build the Next Napa Valley, What Happens to Augusta? 

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Kim and Bruce Siem live on a farm across from one of the Hoffmann-owned wineries. - PHUONG BUI
  • Kim and Bruce Siem live on a farm across from one of the Hoffmann-owned wineries.

The commission voted down the helipad unanimously, to cheers and a partial standing ovation; a gray-haired guy in plaid chit-chatted with two bald Buddhists in matching gray robes and masks as the meeting broke up. By then, the Hoffmanns were already planning to back off, according to Armstrong. In a letter David Hoffmann sent to every home in Augusta, he apologized. "I want you to know that you have been heard," he wrote.

Siem hopes this is sincere. "I'm cautiously optimistic, is all I can really say about it. I'm not putting bets on anything." She noted that the letter did not rule out helicopter tours flying over the town from the nearby Washington airport. In any case, her biggest worry remains traffic and safety on Highway 94, the two winding lanes of which already get clogged up, even without a lot of new tourism coming in.

Armstrong says the plans are still under discussion, but that elected officials and oversight bodies regulate what the Hoffmanns' company can do beyond their own private property. "It's not just a do-whatever-the-heck-you-want-type situation," he says. At some point, he adds, residents need to trust, or push, their elected officials to help shape the project — their representatives have the power of the permit process, and as the helipad episode showed, they could be persuaded to use it.

But Brazil, the county councilman, says that the Hoffmanns have never sat down with him to go over any kind of master plan for the project, and that he is more likely to read in the newspaper what they are planning. "Not that I'm the king out here, but I do represent the people out here," Brazil says. And the Hoffmanns were prone to announcing things publicly, like, say, plans for a golf course, before even securing the proper zoning — though on the other hand, not announcing things publicly could just as easily lead to accusations that the Hoffmanns weren't being transparent. Brazil describes himself as a pro-business, conservative Republican who believes in capitalism: He thinks it's great the Hoffmanns want to buy local businesses. Like many people RFT spoke to, Brazil says Augusta needed investments, and he cheered some of the Hoffmanns' initiatives. The wineries in particular, he says, were seeing new customers. But "at what point do the scales start tipping to a monopoly where one guy has control over everything?"

The defeat of the helipad has meanwhile left undisturbed a variety of other questions and fears, ranging from the aesthetic (those paint colors!), to the logistical (where does all the traffic go?), to the amorphous (where does all this end?).

Milster, of the chamber of commerce, isn't worried, and she's happy with the communication and support she says local businesses have gotten from the Hoffmanns. "I don't have anything negative to say," she says. "We're always in favor of more business, and improving business, and improving the area. ... I think there's a lot of opportunity here." Especially if the Hoffmanns' investments can bring in new people to patronize local businesses, "I think that's great."

John Alsop, too, a town resident who runs a construction company, says he's glad to see tourists coming back. "It's good for my town," he says. "It was dead and now it's coming back to life. Yes, there is turmoil in Augusta, but I'm certain you'll find that in every town in America. I see what's going on on both sides. And I'm actually pro both sides. I would like to see resolution; I would like to see healing." He says he doesn't know what that would look like, however. "I mean, how do you heal America?"

Even with the differences of opinion, Augusta's community spirit is intact when it counts. Armstrong tells me how, when storms hit the area this spring, "the town came together and reached out to us to see if they could help, to make sure that we had generators" so the wine wouldn't go bad. The Hoffmanns' wineries reached out to competitors to see if they needed any assistance. "We're all part of the same family here."

And back at Balducci's, with its bright-orange silo visible from Kim Siem's driveway ("It looks like the top of a carrot," she says), the big bronze Indian princess —Ulele, who according to legend lived in what is now Tampa — stares out at a strange new landscape. She's not native to Missouri, but some things are universal. Her sculptor once had this to say about the expression on the woman's face: "This work of art honors those lost to us. She is strong yet apprehensively looking towards the future."

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