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Lode counties win fair gold in Sacramento

Both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties state fair exhibits brought home the gold this year, winning ribbons for all-around design.

Tuolumne County’s exhibit beat out 29 other counties to win an additional ribbon for Best Visitor Experience. The hands-on display at the California State Fair in Sacramento incorporates a waterfall, information on local history, and items unique to the area. 

“It’s almost like a movie set because you have buildings, animation, an entrance and an exit, and all kinds of walk-in experiences,” said Nanci Sikes, executive director of the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau. 

“Even the pictures will not do it justice,” she added. 

For all-around design, the fair’s Board of Directors judged county exhibits on a point system and assessed them on their portrayal of this year’s theme — “Fun That Moves You.”  

Sikes said presenters were encouraged to dress in costume. Accordingly, Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau marketing manager Sandy Gordon dressed as a fortune teller and “predicted” which Tuolumne County locations the judges might visit.  

The elaborate affair has a funhouse theme, complete with mirrors and doors that open on information about the county. It is a joint venture between Tuolumne County, the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau and Black Oak Casino. 

“It’s become more and more sophisticated and complicated,” Sikes said. “Every year you have to do more than the year before.” 

Calaveras County’s theme is “Whatever Floats Your Boat.” Visitors can jump aboard a boat, try fishing for faux fish, and see a display on the real lakes of Calaveras County. 

The exhibit also features Calaveras Big Trees State Park, agricultural products and wines. 

Tuolumne and Calaveras counties both rely on volunteers to staff their state fair exhibits. 

Sikes said Tuolumne County volunteers handed out thousands of brochures and visitor guides in 2011. She expects this year’s crowd to snap them up even faster. 

The 2012 state fair began Thursday and will run through July 29. 

For more information, visit www.bigfun.org. 

Contact Brenna Swift at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 588-4529. 

Sandwich business booming for downtown deli

The Lighthouse Deli has expanded into an adjacent building on Washington Street, much to the delight of the area lunchtime crowd.

Owners of the popular downtown Sonora shop are renting the storefront next door and removed the wall separating the two to allow for a larger sitting area.

Lighthouse owners Judy and Gerald Foret and their son Brian Farmer expanded the business into a spot that was formerly held by the Let’er Buck Western Wear store, which moved a few doors down.

“In the two weeks since we opened it, we’ve really seen an increase in business,” Judy Foret said. “It’s really working out well.”

But the task of turning two rooms into one wasn’t as simple as pounding though sheetrock with a sledgehammer. The walls were made of crumbly stone and mortar that had to be painstakingly removed brick by brick to avoid undermining the structural integrity of the old building.

Foret said city staff and an engineer drew up plans for the best way to cut through the wall and added a steel frame for support.

Foret said she isn’t sure exactly how old the building is, but the owners believe it dates to the 1850s. The Lighthouse occupies the building under a lease from longtime downtown property owner Bob Ozbirn.

The Lighthouse has six employees, but if business continues to pick up, she said they will begin to look at hiring more. They will also experiment with extending their hours.

The new room allows the deli to nearly double in size to a total of 13 tables and 42 seats.

“People are telling us it’s nice because it’s not as cramped. They feel like they can sit and enjoy their meal,” Foret said.

The Lighthouse Deli is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.


Contact Ryan Campbell at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 588-4534.

Sonora Regional considers staff cuts

Sonora Regional Medical Center is looking at a 4 percent reduction in its workforce, but how that will be achieved is still not known.

In a July 6 letter to employees and physicians obtained by The Union Democrat, Sonora Regional President Jeff Eller stated that the organization has seen a “sharp decline” in its inpatient volumes so far this year. Admissions are down 9 percent for the first six months compared to this last year.

The letter also says that reimbursements are down “in key areas” over the same period, reflecting “a quickly changing healthcare landscape.”

Eller states that, despite immediate actions to reduce expenses, Sonora Regional will have to make “long-term” and “sustainable” adjustments. That means reducing staff levels at the hospital by 4 percent, according the letter. 

State labor statistics and the most recent county employment show the hospital employs around 1,000 people. That makes Sonora Regional among the two top private employers in the county, the other being the Tuolumne band of Me Wuk Indians.

“This trend is significant, it is sustained, and it required permanent structural change,” he states in the letter.

Just how the staff reductions will look, however, remains to be seen. Hospital spokeswoman Gail Witzlsteiner said on Thursday afternoon that department managers are preparing reports that will recommend options. But those options — whether they are early retirements, relocating, layoffs or eliminating vacant positions — will take a few weeks to come together.

“At that time, we’ll have a better idea of how that will affect the overall employee group,” Witzlsteiner.

Some employees have already been laid off, although hospital representatives would not say how many.

The letter was released around the time Sonora Regional announced it would purchase the Greenley Road property that previously housed Andy’s Home Center for a hospital expansion. The plans are to relocate the cancer center and other offices to the property, where there will be a medical pavilion.

Though no costs of the purchase were disclosed, the parcels were last assessed on Jan. 1 for a combined $3.17 million.

Witzlsteiner said the money used to purchase the property came out of strategic capital funds from parent company Adventist. No operational money from Sonora Regional was used, she said.

“What we’re trying to do is be proactive with our operations here in Sonora,” Witzlsteiner said.

Famous footwear to open

Famous Footwear will open its doors in The Junction shopping center starting on July 18, according to business representatives.

The 6,000-square-foot store will occupy the former McCloud’s Pet Emporium building between T.J. Maxx and Kohl’s.

The store will hold a grand opening event on July 28 beginning at 10 a.m., where the community is invited to celebrate with free shoe drawings every hour, giveaways and a DJ. One customer will win a shopping spree that will give them 30 seconds to run through the aisles and grab as many free pairs of shoes as possible.

“Our store will offer athletic, comfort and fashion footwear styles, making it a one-stop shop for the whole family,” said Latoya White, Famous Footwear spokesperson. 

Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority Director Larry Cope said the store will expand local shopping choices and is expected to attract consumers from surrounding counties. 

“This welcome addition to the community helps add to the momentum of economic development in Tuolumne County by offering residents more selection and a reason to shop locally,” he said.

Famous Footwear carries more than 100 nationally recognized brands, including Nike, Naturalizer, Puma, Steve Madden, Converse, New Balance, DC, Rocket Dog and Carlos by Carlos Santana, in its retail stores and online store. The retailer also offers an assortment of fitness footwear including brands Skechers, Reebok, Avia and rykä. St. Louis-based Famous Footwear is owned by Brown Shoe Co.

McCloud’s, one of the oldest tenants in The Junction, moved to a space next to the Fashion Bug, where Pure Cowboy and K-B Toys used to be.

New owners take helm of Peppery restaurant

The American dream is a reality for Dave and Alicia Ballard.

They are the new owners of the Peppery Gar and Brill and they are beginning to put their own stamp on the popular American fare restaurant on Mono Way.

The husband and wife duo grew up in Sonora and had modest beginnings at the restaurant. Dave started as a dishwasher at the Peppery more than 15 years ago. While working there he met Alicia, who was a waitress.

Dave rose through the ranks to become head cook and eventually married Alicia. In fact, many of the major events in the lives of the Ballards have centered around the Peppery, so about six months ago they decided to take the former owner, Chris Perry, up on an offer to buy it.

“It’s kind of always been our plan in the background,” Alicia said. “Dave knows the business inside and out.”

She said the restaurant already has a large and loyal clientele, so they don’t plan to change the core attractions at the restaurant like steaks, satellite sports channels and lovely young waitresses in floral print skirts.

“We have a few changes, but nothing too dramatic,” Alicia said.

However they do plan to make some additions to the menu, including healthy chicken dishes, cioppino pasta and a new and improved wing sauce. They also plan to add a fresh coat of paint, bigger TVs and an expanded wine list.

They have set up a Facebook page to help promote the business on the web and already have more than 250 “likes.”

The Peppery opened in 1994 and has about 36 employees, some of whom have been working there for a decade, Alicia said. The restaurant serves more than 400 hungry customers a day.

The new owners now balance their time between running the restaurant, finding fresh produce vendors and raising their 2-year-old son.

“We want to build on the reputation that’s already here,” Dave said.

Camacho's closed for business

Two Camacho’s restaurants in Sonora closed abruptly this month after the owner reported lagging sales.

A sign was posted in the windows of the two Southwestern-style eateries, one in the Safeway shopping center and the other on North Washington Street, stating that the businesses were closed for repairs. However, owner Bob Milz said that he isn’t sure if he will open the restaurants again.

He blamed the poor economy in the county and the tightened spending habits of consumers for the low sales figures.

He said sales were down more than 60 percent since he purchased the businesses two years ago and that the restaurants were hemorrhaging money.

“I had to stop the bleeding,” Milz said. “We’re in holding mode right now.”

He still holds the leases on both buildings and said he will reassess whether or not to open them in a few weeks.

Milz, who also runs a successful hardware business, said the restaurants were starting to drag down his other ventures.

“I kept hanging in there hoping things would turn around, but you’ve got to have business to succeed,” he said.

In April, Camacho’s opened an “express” location near Sonora High School.

The restaurant has gone through several phases over the past few years, opening and closing in various locations. Camacho’s founder, David Camacho, previously moved the restaurant from its Jamestown location to the Days Inn Sonora building. He sold the business to Milz in 2010, who subsequently opened the Sanguinetti Road location.

In April, it was reported that the business had 20 employees and served 90 to 150 customers a day.

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

Mother Lode wineries bring home fair gold

A number of Mother Lode wineries brought home gold at this year’s California State Fair Wine Competition.

Several wineries who grow their grapes outside of the county won a plethora of medals and two others that grow their grapes in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties won gold as well.

The California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition is one of the oldest of its kind in the United States. For more than 150 years, wineries across the state have competed in the annual competition, which in recent years has drawn nearly 3,000 entries.

All wines are entered based on the viticultural area — or appellation — where the grapes are actually grown, not where the winery is located. A panel of judges who come from a range of professional backgrounds evaluate the wines before determining the winners.

Local winemaker and Sonora City Attorney Richard Matranga didn’t enter a selection from his Sonora Winery and Port Works this year, but instead served as a judge.

Matranga said about 70 judges each tasted about 200 wines in a two to three day period at the State Fairgrounds in Sacramento. He said the Sierra Foothills had a surprisingly strong showing, rivaling bigger and better-known appellations including Napa Valley and Sonoma.

“As a foothills winemaker, it’s really great to have that happen,” he said. “The State Fair is the granddaddy of all wine competitions in California, so it’s big.”

Gianelli Vineyards, which is located in Jamestown and grows its grapes in Tuolumne County, won a gold medal for its “La Dolce Vita” dessert white wine. The particular wine has also won a number of other awards.

Lorie Gianelli, who has operated the vineyard since 1980 with her husband, Ron, said it’s common to see a spike in visitors coming to their tasting room after winning high-profile awards for their wines.

“We’ve been winning a lot of awards in the past few years, but anytime we win a gold it’s so exciting,” she said. “Our name is getting out there now.”

Gianelli Vineyards also took home one bronze and four silver medals for other wines. Their “Nino” wine, which is a blend of grenache, primitivo and petite syrah, won best of class for the Sierra Foothills Appellations.

In Calaveras County, Chatom Vineyards won a gold medal for its 2008 syrah. It also won two silver and two bronze medals for other wines it entered.

Chatom Vineyards in Douglas Flat is owned by Gay Callen, who first purchased her 21-acre property in 1980 and began with two wines. Now, the company plants 13 different varietal grapes and has grown to 65 aces.

Callen said her vineyard has won a number of awards over the years, including double gold for the same syrah at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, but the special recognition is always a confidence boost.

“It’s a congratulation to all of us,” she said. “We really take a lot of pride in what we do.”

Other wineries in Calaveras County that won medals for wines which the grapes were not grown locally were: Black Sheep Winery, one gold and three silver medals; Broll Mountain Vineyards, one silver and two bronze medals; Irish Family Vineyards, two silver medals; Ironstone Vineyards, one gold and one bronze medal; Milliaire Winery, one double gold, one gold, one silver and three bronze medals;  and Twisted Oak Winery, five silver medals.

Contact Alex MacLean at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 588-4530.

Ford dealership sold in Sonora


The Union Democrat

A major auto dealership in Sonora has changed hands and changed names.

Hammond Ford, which has been selling new and used cars and trucks since 1982, was sold last week and has changed its name to Sonora Ford.

The new owners, Ramona Llamas and her husband Manuel Prieto, had been visiting the Mother Lode for the past eight years when they heard the dealership was for sale. 

They decided to move to the region from Fresno after striking a deal with the former owners, Llamas said.

Prieto has been selling cars since he was 18 years old, and most recently was general manager of a dealership in Fresno. The two also own several acres of almond orchards.

Llamas said they had been working out a deal with the business’s former owner, Paul Hammond, for the past eight months. She said they were interested in the dealership in part because of its prime location on Mono Way within eyeshot of Highway 108.

“It’s a great place and a wonderful location,” Llamas said.

The number of cars on the lot had been dwindling for the past several months, but Llamas said her first goal in purchasing the dealership was to bring a broader selection of vehicles. 

As a result, the dealership will take a shipment of 60 cars and trucks over the next few weeks.

“Our first focus is to get enough cars here to show our community that we’re serious about giving them more choices and good service,” Llamas said.

She said the most popular vehicles these days are fuel efficient cars like the Ford Focus and light pickups.

“People are really interested in cars with good gas mileage and also trucks,” Llamas said.

A Sonora Ford sign now tops the business, which has served as a car lot in some fashion since the 1920s, she said.

“It’s a cornerstone business in the community, so we’d like to be here another 100 years if possible,” she said.

The business is located at 13254 Mono Way. 

For more information, call 532-5593.

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

Vacant commercial properties abound


The Union Democrat

Many area realtors say the economic crisis of the past few years has dealt a blow to commercial real estate in the Mother Lode as fewer people have the capital to open new businesses and loans are increasingly more difficult to obtain.

Realtors’ associations in both Calaveras and Tuolumne counties report that they have been selling fewer commercial properties since 2007, when the nation’s housing bubble peaked prior to one of the worst economic recessions in U.S. history.

“It’s hard to sell businesses, it’s hard to sell houses and it’s hard to sell land,” said Betsy Duncan, realtor and former president of the Calaveras County Association of Realtors. “It’s just a symptom of the larger problem.”

Duncan said there have been three commercial properties sold since June 2011, according to the Calaveras County Multiple Listing Service, a database used by real estate brokers to track listing information. 

She noted that more properties are being sold by out-of-area agents since the economic crisis began, which would not be tracked in Calaveras County’s MLS, but the three sold by local agents over the past year are 14 fewer than all of 2005 when sales were at a peak.

“The trend has not been good. Nothing got better with the economic crisis,” Duncan said.

There are currently 36 commercial properties listed for sale in the county’s MLS with about 40 percent of them having been on the market for more than a year, according to Duncan.

Business hasn’t been looking any better in Tuolumne County either.

Commercial real estate sales severely declined in 2008 and have stayed low ever since, according to statistics from the Tuolumne County MLS provided by the Ann Ritchie, president of the Tuolumne County Association of Realtors.

The statistics show there were 25 commercial or industrial units sold for a combined total of about $21.9 million in 2007. Sales dropped to seven units in 2008 for a combined total of about $3.8 million.

The average number of commercial or industrial units sold annually has remained at about seven, with four sold and two leased since the beginning of this year, according to the county’s MLS.

“It’s been extremely hard,” said Adam Wilson, a local real estate broker currently listing several commercial properties in downtown Sonora.

Wilson said a number of factors have contributed to tough market, including people lacking the disposable income to put into their business endeavors and banks tightening their grips on business loans.

“They’ve really toughened a lot of those standards and a lot of people just don’t have the credit they used to,” he said.

Tuolumne County planners say they’ve been issuing fewer residential and commercial building permits in recent years as well, which they say correlates with the economic downturn.

Mike Laird, of the Tuolumne County Community Resources Agency, said the county was issuing building permits for about 400 new single family residences and about 20 commercial buildings annually before 2008. Now, those averages have decreased to about 40 to 60 single family residences and about three commercial buildings.

He said the county is issuing nearly the same amount of permits for making additions or alterations to existing structures. More than 1,500 were issued last year, compared to 1,680 in 2007, which include both residential and commercial structures.

Laird said the numbers suggest more people are rehabilitating and remodeling existing businesses rather than building new ones, which is not an ideal trend for a local economy that has traditionally centered around construction.

“It’s not the big ticket items anymore,” he said of the types of permits being issued.

Unemployment down in Lode

Union Democrat Staff

Jobless claims fell slightly for the second straight month in the Mother Lode, according to job market data released Friday.

The unemployment  rate in Tuolumne County was at 11.7 percent in May, according to the California Employment Development Department, a half-percent decrease compared to April when that figure was 12.2 percent.

Unemployment has fluctuated slightly in the county since the first of the year, however jobless claims overall have dropped from 13.1 percent in May, 2011.

The workforce also grew slightly last month to 25,780, compared to 25,640 in April.

Most of the job gains were in state and local governments, education and health, and in the service sector.

Neighboring Calaveras County also saw a half-percent drop in unemployment in May compared to the previous month.

Jobless claims were at 12.9 percent last month, compared to 13.4 percent in April. Unemployment is down overall compared to May last year, when 14.3 percent of the workforce filed for unemployment benefits, according to the EDD.

The total number of workers comprising the county’s labor force rose to 19,510 last month. 

During the same period in April, the labor force was 19,360, according to the EDD. 

Most of the job gains in Calaveras County were in state and local governments, the service sector and in industries related to mining, logging and construction. California’s unemployment rate remained fell slightly last month to 10.8 percent as more people began looking for work in May, according to EDD. About 425,000 jobs have been created in the state since the economic recovery began in 2009.

The state’s jobless rate is well above the national average of 8.2 percent.

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