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Businesses shaking things up in south county

Several businesses in downtown Groveland are trying new things and attracting more business from tourists and locals alike.

Among them are the Oso Hostel, Hotel Charlotte and Mountain Sage Nursery.

New digs for Doggs

Downtown Sonora has seen a noticeable change in its storefronts this year, with several new retail shops open and a restaurant on the way.

The JDoggs hot dog cart that was stationed in the Lowe’s parking lot off Old Wards Ferry Road has found a more permanent home on South Washington Street.

Resort for sale

Bear Valley Mountain Resort and surrounding developments are listed for sale and a resort spokeswoman said an ownership change is a lock.

The asking price is not included in a listing at cbremarketplace.com, a site operated by Los Angeles-based commercial real estate broker CBRE.


It’s a wrap

Area ski resorts are upbeat about the 2013 ski season, now winding down after a second straight year of lower-than-average snowfall.

Dodge Ridge off Highway 108 in Tuolumne County on Sunday closed for the season. Bear Valley in Alpine County will remain open through this weekend and will close no later than April 21.


Local home sales are looking up

Local home sales have shown some positive signs so far this year, though the Mother Lode still has a way to go before a full real estate recovery.

In Tuolumne County, total home sales and median sale price are both up this year through October compared to 2011, according to preliminary numbers from the Tuolumne County Association of Realtors. 

So far, 760 homes were sold through October with the median price at $165,000. In 2011, the numbers through October were 643 homes and $162,000. The dollar figure slipped to $160,000 by the end of 2011.

“What the year-to-date tells me is we are a little bit stronger this year,” said Ann Ritchie, executive director of the association. “It’s a small percent, but it’s going in the right direction.”

Preliminary numbers for the month of October showed 88 homes sold overall — 23 foreclosures, 11 short sales and 54 traditional sales. The median price was $165,000, down from 2011 when it was $169,000. In September, 67 sales took place with a median price of $160,000 — up from 2011, when it was $153,000.

Ritchie said the month-to-month numbers are not as good of an indicator for the market as the overall numbers for the year.

“I think the year-to-date really tells more of the story,” she said.

In Calaveras County, home sales increased through October in 2012 over 2011 as well from 791 to 887, according to sales data from the County Association of Realtors. However, the median price in the county dropped 2.4 percent from $164,000 to $160,000.

Calaveras County had a strong October, according to the sales data, with 103 sold listings up from 78 in the same month last year. The median price in October this year was $165,000.

The local sales have occurred in the midsts of what appears to be a strengthening statewide real estate market. 

The California Association of Realtors reported this week that around the country, home prices were up 2.9 percent in October over last year. And through September, the latest month statewide data is available, the association reported the median sale price was up almost 20 percent to $345,000. 

Overall home sales were down statewide about 1 percent due to declining inventory, the state association said.

Downtown shuffle

Downtown Sonora has a bit of a different look than this time last year, with some new restaurants and a few changes in the retail store selections in the city’s historic district.

In the past few months alone, the eatery and music venue House of Soup opened its doors, while down the street, signs indicated the coming of sports bar called Europa. 

Not all of the changes have been openings, as a specialty pet boutique, cupcake shop and clothing store have all closed and been replaced by empty fronts within a few blocks of one another on Washington Street.

One of the county’s top business voices says that type of turnover isn’t unusual for downtown districts like Sonora’s, which is largely based on retail and food service.

“We do have a constant rotation in downtown, and that’s not unusual,” said Larry Cope, executive director with the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority.

The TEDA website, which lists potential and available business sites in the county, has about 20 locations in the downtown area that include office and retail space for rent as well as for sale. Cope said he sees those places, the ones where a business hasn’t opened yet, as a good indicator of a healthy downtown.

In Sonora, Cope said, vacant spots are often filled within months especially if they’re retail or restaurants. He estimated that the downtown area has between 5 and 10 percent of those locations vacant. But he also said when a business leaves, there’s immediate interest in the open location.

Cope gave a number of examples. The pet store already has a sign indicating the nearby Mountain Home Gifts store will move into the location, and Cope said he’s already had people inquiring about the gift shop’s current location. 

The cupcake bakery location, he said, should be filled in a “couple months.”

There are exceptions, like the long popular Alfredo’s restaurant that closed last year and is still vacant, or the Miner’s Shack cafe that remained unfilled for a long time. But in most cases like that, there’s an issue with the property beyond its availability.

“What I look at is the time it takes to fill the building,” Cope said. “Unless there was a structural problem with it, most of our properties have been filling up in under six months.”

Cope said it’s hard to pinpoint what drives this in Sonora, especially considering all downtowns are influenced by so many factors like location, demographics other regional business climates and local income levels, and can change over time. But he said the downtown is likely helped by having so many government offices located adjacently, the nearby tourist attractions and the city’s variety of retail locations that draw visitors in general to the city.

“I’m comfortable with what’s happening to downtown. That’s normal rotation for what you see in a downtown climate,” he said. “Overall, I think we’re doing good.”

Yosemite Chamber seeking local input

Businesses near the northern entrance to Yosemite National Park will have the opportunity to promote themselves with the park’s upcoming 150th anniversary.

The Yosemite Chamber of Commerce is hosting a special public meeting on Nov. 7 where locals can learn how they can play a role in the 2014 celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant Act. 

Park officials are planning to work with businesses, organizations and people in the park’s gateway communities and who are tied to Yosemite tourism to get them involved in a large-scale marketing campaign for the anniversary.

“Efforts are expected to be international, all the way from local to worldwide,” said Carolyn Botell, administrator for the Groveland based Yosemite Chamber of commerce.

Through Dec. 15, the National Park Service will accept submissions for products, programs and events and other ideas that can be included as part of the overall anniversary celebration. 

Local festival and event coordinators can present ideas for a special tie-in to the park in 2014, or businesses can sell special items with a connection, according to the Chamber.

If accepted, the park will help promote the event, product or program through various marketing means leading up to the anniversary.

Botell said the meeting next week will offer the materials required to apply, and park officials will be on hand to further explain the opportunities. 

The Yosemite Chamber has invited businesses in an outside of the Groveland area in hopes as many as possible will join.

Botell said it will be a chance, in some cases, to get free advertising and marketing in the park’s campaign promoting the anniversary.

So far, Botell said she is not yet aware of any locals that are participating.

“I’m hoping people go away from it with the form in hand, ready to actually do something … and think outside the box a little bit,” she said.

The Yosemite Grant Act was signed June 30, 1864 by Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the American Civil War. The act set aside the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove as protected land managed as a state park.

Management of Yosemite was later transferred to the National Park Service, and the park is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country.

Contact Chris Caskey at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 588-4527.

Time for chains?

Mother Lode residents looking to make extra cash this winter might want to consider becoming chain installers. 

Caltrans is holding an orientation class for applicants next month — the first step to receiving an encroachment permit to install chains on vehicles along highways 4, 88, 89, 108, 120 and 207 in Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador and Alpine counties. 

Chain installers are self-employed or employed by private agencies, and stationed along highways to assist motorists with installing, removing and repairing chains and cables.

“The majority of people don’t want to get out of their nice warm cars and you don’t blame them,” said local chain installer Mitch Wilson.

Although they are not employed by the state, workers must receive permits and identification bibs through Caltrans. 

Fifteen bibs will be issued for each highway, with one bib per district per highway, according to Caltrans spokeswoman Angela DaPrato. 

Highway 4 and Highway 108 are the most popular spots for chain installers, and more are needed on Highway 88, DaPrato said. 

Wilson, a Sonora resident, has been installing chains since 1996 as a way to supplement his income when his carpentry work slows down in the winter.

He sets his own schedule, typically working from 7 a.m. until about 5 p.m. to catch peak ski traffic. 

He said rates usually run around $30 for installation and $20 for removal, but it varies depending on the vehicle — service for an 18-wheeler will cost more than service for a sedan. 

However, chain installers will tend to school buses for free, according to Wilson.

Each chain installer must purchase a new permit every year, which costs $160. Bibs are $40 but only need to be replaced if they are worn out, Wilson said.

Returning chain installers with no violations are not required to attend the orientation and take the written and performance exam each year, according to Caltrans. 

They can schedule an appointment to pick up their permits from the Caltrans Maintenance Office at 98 S. Main St., in Angels Camp by calling 736-0187.

New applicants can call the same number to sign up for the class and exam, which will be held at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 14, at the Caltrans Maintenance Office. Successful applicants can pick up their permits immediately after the test. 

Calaveras County requires a business license for all applicants interested in working on Highway 4. It can be obtained through the Calaveras County Tax Collector’s Office in the Government Center at 891 Mountain Ranch Road in San Andreas. 

Wilson said installing chains in the snow can be hard work but he doesn’t mind. 

“We want to be out there,” he said. “If you can’t take the cold, you’re not going to be out there. You’re out there in the elements.”

Contact Christina O’Haver at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 588-4526. 

An apple a day


The Union Democrat

Fruit stands in the Mother Lode are piling up with apples, as area orchards reach the halfway point of a decent apple season.

While the extended summer heat reduced the size of apples and pushed harvest back slightly, autumn temperatures above freezing levels have benefitted production, according to orchardists.

“You want your summer and fall season to be extended so you can get everything harvested,” said Lloyd Bunch, who operates the Red Apple orchard in Murphys.

The cooler weather across the Mother Lode this week should help the sugaring and coloring of the apples, while the rain will provide water for the trees, said Cover’s Apple Ranch owner Ben Cover.

Storms can be problematic if they are accompanied by wind, which can knock apples to the ground, or followed by a frost, Bunch said.

Cover’s Apple Ranch in Tuolumne is now harvesting winesap, red and golden delicious and Rome beauty apples. 

The Red Apple is harvesting Fuji, Rome beauty and red delicious apples. The varieties will join Jonagold, Jonathan, McIntosh, empire, golden delicious and winesap apples on the stands.

Bunch said they kicked off the harvest season in early September by picking gala apples and will wrap up harvest with pink lady, crimson winesap and Arkansas black apples.

Cover described apples as low maintenance crops, requiring pruning in the winter and water in the summer before harvest in the fall. 

However, hail or frost can be detrimental to apples. If temperatures dip into the low 30s and linger for more than 12 hours, there is little orchardists can do to protect the fruit, according to Cover.

He said late spring frost is the reason there are few apple orchards in the Sierra foothills, which is otherwise a great location for growing the produce.

Bunch said the Mother Lode used to be a prime spot for growing apples until housing developments replaced orchards over the years.

The Red Apple’s orchard spans about six or seven acres of land, but when apples were first planted on the farm in the early 1900s, the orchard covered about 30 acres. Over the years, land was sold to developers and homes were built on it.

But even after downsizing, the Red Apple is still home to several varieties of apples which can be used to make a wide range of ciders, pastries, applesauce and jams.

“That’s the unique thing about apples is (they’re) very versatile,” Bunch said.

Bunch said different apples lend themselves to certain uses. One of the reasons for the bakery on the farm is to reclaim apples that have been bruised, which don’t sell on the fruit stand but still make great pies and other goods. 

“It’s not a fantastic year but we’ve got lots of apples,” Cover said.

Diamondback eatery for sale by owners

Popular Tuolumne County eateries Diamondback Grill and Standard Pour are up for sale, according to owner Eric Davis.

Davis and his wife, Claudia, recently put the restaurants on the market as part of their plan to gradually work less hours.

“It’s simply a matter of saying, at this stage in our career, we would like to slow down just a little bit,” he said. 

Davis said he is passionate about his career in food service and would like to continue working in the industry, but at a less stressful level.

Approaching its 21st anniversary, Diamondback Grill on Washington Street in downtown Sonora is widely praised for its half-pound hamburgers and large wine selection. 

The Standard Pour, which opened nearly two years ago in Standard, is known for the array of craft beers it offers.

Davis does not yet know if anyone is seriously interested in buying the restaurants but intends to be selective about who takes over the businesses. 

“I realize that if you sell a business, you no longer have anything to say about it,” he said. “My hope is, there’d be another 21 years of continuity of the Diamondback being a fundamental part of the social fabric of Sonora.” 

Davis said selling a restaurant is difficult and the struggling economy won’t make it any easier, but he and his wife are happy to continue running the eateries in the meantime.

The couple developed their exit plan years ago and decided to execute it recently, knowing it would be a gradual process. 

Davis said they created the plan to avoid making a capricious decision to sell the businesses out of stress and frustration.

Davis said he and his wife are proud of Diamondback Grill’s success and still enjoy being a part of it.

“We’re at the top of our game and happy to stay at the top of our game,” he said. 

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