To promote its future, Petaluma looks to the past

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Jennifer Hanson doesn’t know much German, but she’s learning. The Petaluma Adobe State Park guide said she is seeing more history enthusiasts visiting from out of state and indeed as far away as Europe and Asia.

“The summertime is heavy for out-of-state visitors. I think that’s big,” Hanson said. “We do send them downtown to the history museum, especially if they are history buffs. We have great restaurants and shopping.”

Petaluma tourism officials are looking to the past to try and attract new visitors, capitalizing on the city’s rich history dating back to the 1836 Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo adobe. Soon, the Petaluma Visitor’s Program expects to have a new revenue source with which to promote the city and its history even more widely.

“The more people that know about the park, that helps all of us,” Hanson said.

Petaluma’s promotional arm has been funded through a $250,000 contribution from the city’s General Fund, which elected officials could decide to pull during lean budgetary years. A group of Petaluma hotel owners, with the blessing of the city council, has been studying forming a special district, called a tourism improvement district, which would charge a 2 percent tax on hotel stays to create a dedicated fund for promotional efforts.

“We’re excited. It will mean longterm security to capture our market share,” said Marie McCusker, executive director of the Downtown Business Associate, which runs the visitor program. “We will be on par with other locations. It’s a win-win for all.”

McCusker said Petaluma has plenty to offer the history tourist. Besides the historic adobe and the downtown museum, the city also boasts a plethora of historic buildings and has a cast of volunteers who dress up in period costume to give visitors tours of downtown.

“People go to a place because it has interest,” she said. “Heritage tourism is huge. History is such an important part of our tourism story here in Petaluma. Our job is to share that story with the world.”

Angela Ryan, the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum executive director, said having a centralized tourism promotion shop is important to selling the city’s message. She said the museum averages 1,000 visitors per month, a number that is steadily growing.

“The visitors program is important to be able to impress upon people,” she said. “People come from all over to see our history.”

The Petalumans of Yesteryear, the group of history-minded tour guides, provide walking tours of downtown every Saturday morning from May through October. Volunteers play the part of prominent Petalumans, including Isaac Wickersham, Lyman Byce and Tom Bayliss.

While the tourism improvement district looks to be in place by the end of the year, it was Petalumans of yesteryear who improved the early city in the 1800s. Addie Atwater started the Petaluma Women’s Improvement Club, which created Walnut Park and the Carnegie building that today houses the museum, said Sheri Ortegren, who embodies Atwater’s character.

“I was involved in many projects that did improve my beloved Petaluma,” she said.

(Contact Matt Brown at

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