As ‘pop-up city’ Edge Esmeralda departs Healdsburg, a look behind its walls

Why did tech innovators, investors and researchers get together this June in Healdsburg? The answer is simple ... and complicated.|
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Healdsburg's Hotel Trio served as the main hub for Edge Esmeralda, a 30-day "pop-up city" that included lectures, outings, dinners and more. (Amie Windsor/The Press Democrat)
June 29, 2024, 3:33PM

When word got out that entrepreneurs, urban planners, researchers and investors would descend upon Healdsburg for the entire month of June, the gossip that splashed through coffee shops, farmers market booths and plaza benches was familiar, if warranted.

"Is this another Solano County thing," a reference to the "city of the future" being planned by a group of Silicon Valley tech moguls near Travis Air Force Base?

"Why Healdsburg?"

"Just what are they doing here, exactly?"

Turns out, any worry over Edge Esmeralda, the monthlong "pop-up city" that took over the north end of Healdsburg, was for naught.

To be clear, Edge Esmeralda isn’t a city, but more of a really, really long conference, attracting — by design — "people who believe the future can be better and are actively working to make it happen," according to its website.

The participants and their daily activities, which included lectures; outings at area parks, galleries and wineries; hackathons; and how-to’s for living locally, had little effect on daily Healdsburg life. Locals, in fact, could take in the Edge Esmeralda experience for as low as $195 for the month.

A ‘container for creative ideas’

The event was a collaboration between tech entrepreneur Devon Zuegel and pop-up village developer Timour Kosters, each of whom have wide-ranging backgrounds and business experiences.

Zuegel’s dream is to take what she’s learning in Healdsburg to create Esmeralda, a permanent city of sorts mirrored after New York’s Chautauqua Institution.

The Chautauqua Institution is a 750-acre community on Chautauqua Lake where roughly 7,500 people go every summer for nine weeks.

According to Zuegel, "Chautauqua is a place of perpetual learning, one where everyone in the tight-knit community values learning new things and encourages each other to do so.

"Our intention is to build something much smaller, more akin to a college campus within an existing community," she said in an email.

Zuegel said she has talked with communities in northern California about her vision but didn’t disclose the names of those places. It’s entirely possible Esmeralda might someday take shape outside California, too.

"One of the key characteristics we’re looking for in a city is a local community that is excited for this to be part of their culture," Zuegel said. "We’ve found a number of places that are very excited about the potential to have a Chautauqua-like place in their community, and we’re exploring those relationships closely right now and the viability of several different locations."

That vision intrigued Mickey Muldoon, a software engineer from Chicago, enough for him to make a pit stop in Healdsburg in between vacations in Seattle and Big Sur.

"To me, this is the ultimate creative project," said Muldoon, who attended the event for a week. "Having a town or village you craft in accordance with your values or ideals can serve as a container for creative projects. They’re petri dishes for human culture. All great creative moments are tied to special places like this."

Esmeralda’s ‘residents’

Healdsburg’s Hotel Trio served as the hub for most of the experience. The hotel was transformed into an energetic boutique that radiated with high-functioning players from around the world. Its foyer and breakfast nook bubbled in the mornings with a global cast of angel investors, venture capitalists, artificial intelligence researchers, blockchain builders, philosophers and holistic health care professionals exchanging ideas over bowls of organic oatmeal, cups of coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice.

The energy spilled onto Healdsburg streets and bike paths where Edge Esmeralda participants met for daily runs at 7 a.m. or rode their bikes to other local businesses, including the Healdsburg Gym, coffee shops, art galleries, restaurants and wineries.

Conversations about protocols and biomarker testing could be overheard at Plank Coffee, where Edge participants like Hamdin Sula, a philosopher and psychologist from Germany, and Maya Caddle, a blockchain builder and venture capitalist from London, became regulars.

They valued the concept of bringing together highly ambitious, highly functioning creators and thinkers from around the world into a single location.

"I like the pop-up city concept," Caddle said. "A good society is intersectional and diverse. It should create a healthy space to discuss different challenges. You might discover you never thought about the world in a certain way. I think that’s how you get to progress."

Edge Esmeralda wraps up its Healdsburg experience Sunday, June 30. "We’ve been happy to hear from locals that they’ve barely noticed that Edge Esmeralda is in town," Zuegel said.

Among the speakers at the event was Jeff Kay, Healdsburg’s city manager. He concurred with Zuegel.

Kay said the city did experience "a major jump in the usage of our bike share program" and expects to see a small bump in the transient occupancy taxes from Edge Esmeralda hotel bookings, but added that "it will be hard to isolate the impact."

Bottom line: "I haven’t heard much," from locals about the pop-up city, and "I haven’t received any complaints about negative impacts."

Amie Windsor is the Community Journalism Team Lead with The Press Democrat. She can be reached at [email protected] or 707-521-5218.