Downtown shuffle

By Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat November 07, 2012 03:00 pm

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all of the changes have been openings, as a specialty pet boutique, cupcake shop and clothing store have all closed and been replaced by empty fronts within a few blocks of one another on Washington Street.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.”