There are at least a dozen vacant and for-rent storefronts and other spaces in larger buildings on South Main Street in downtown Angels Camp, including the ambitious Utica Hotel renovation project, a plan on which many pin their hopes for the city’s economic future.

Pero and Mary Ann Margaretic, of Santa Clara County, purchased the 1930s art deco-trimmed Utica Hotel in April 2015 for about $1.15 million, Mary Ann Margaretic said Wednesday morning.

Plans for opening a cocktail lounge in a basement of the Utica Hotel, originally hoped for by late 2017, and other plans to open a restaurant and hotel rooms by the end of this year have been delayed, Mary Ann Margaretic said, speaking by phone from the Bay Area.

She said her husband has been busy with multiple other development projects, including one in Santa Clara County. Pero Margaretic, who is from Dubrovnik, Croatia, has also had to return to his home country from time to time.

The Margaretics remain excited and motivated about the Utica Hotel project, Mary Ann Margaretic said.

“We’re hoping to do as much as we can and get the bar in the basement area and be open by the end of this year,” Mary Ann Margaretic said. “Utica is a remodel, and it’s a big undertaking. The hotel, that will take a while. We hope to have the next phase ready by the end of next year. A restaurant, maybe some rooms. We’re getting really close on the bar. We just need time.”

Firman Brown, the Angels Camp-base project manager for the Utica Hotel renovation, confirmed some of what Mary Ann Margaretic said.

“They’re not going to work here for about six weeks,” Brown said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We’re not a priority over here. They’ve got bigger priorities right now elsewhere.”

Main Street plan

While many residents, existing business owners, real estate agents, planners and promoters wait for things to happen at the Utica Hotel, four teams of more than 30 managers, designers, advisors and stakeholders have completed the $204,250 Angels Camp Main Street Plan.

The finished 145-page planning document is intended to address community design, public spaces, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and parking facilities on the Highway 49 Main Street in Angels Camp, including the historic downtown district.

Work on the Angels Camp Main Street Plan took about 18 months, from December 2015 to May 2017, and the Angels Camp City Council adopted the final plan in August 2017, said Amber Collins, a planner with Calaveras County Council of Governments.

The first physical evidence of the planning guidelines in Main Street Plan will be visible in May or June when the new Dollar General store opens north of downtown in Angels Camp, said Debbie Ponte, executive director for Destination Angels Camp Development Corporation.

Destination Angels Camp is a nonprofit, public-private partnership with the Angels Camp town government with the stated aim of economic development to retain and attract businesses. An informal inventory of vacant and occupied business spaces in downtown Angels Camp this week showed a ratio of about 80 percent occupied and 20 percent vacant.

Asked Tuesday about downtown vacancies and the Utica Hotel and the Main Street Plan, Ponte said, “Our goal is a hundred percent occupancy. That 20 percent vacancy, that represents three or four big buildings downtown. The Utica is a work in progress. Project Main Street is from one end of town to the other. The community has a plan.”

There are least three or four new businesses opening and planning to open in the near future in downtown Angels Camp. But vacant storefronts outnumber the handful of newcomers, and the lack of significant visible progress in languishing downtown Angels Camp frustrates some people who care about the economic future of Angels Camp.

The lack of progress downtown coincides with the Angels Camp council’s move last week to direct staff to prepare a ballot measure for voters to decide in November whether to increase the local sales tax a half-cent, from 7.25 percent to 7.75 percent.

What do vacancies mean?

Jessica Hitchcock is an urban economics consultant based in Berkeley who lives in Murphys, and she is a former vice president of bae urban economics, with a masters degree in city and regional planning from the University of California, Berkeley.

Asked for perspective Wednesday, and how Angels Camp compares to its neighboring town Murphys, Hitchcock emphasized she does want to be perceived as bashing Angels Camp or be portrayed as unfairly assessing the state of affairs in downtown Angels Camp. She was nonetheless frank in her assessment.

“Murphys in some ways is an outlier,” Hitchcock said in a phone interview. “Murphys, which has a zero vacancy rate, has found a way to support a local economy that’s built on wine and tourism and the local economy. Angels Camp is in a different category. I'm thinking of Arnold. I think Arnold has a high vacancy rate, too.”

Towns that don’t do a good job of building their local economies, with comprehensive strategies, tend to see higher vacancy rates, Hitchcock said.

“Angels Camp has a better advantage than a place like Arnold,” Hitchcock said. “You have Highways 49 and 4 that really create a good traffic flow. The question is what makes them stay. I'm not convinced they’ve done a great job of developing a local economy that attracts people.”

Noreen Coca, co-owner of Firefall Jewelers on South Main Street in Angels Camp since 2003, who recently criticized City of Angels Camp plans to explore increasing the local sales tax or the city’s visitors tax, said she believes downtown vacancies in Angels Camp result in part from high rents.

“Twenty percent, I don’t like that,” Coca said Tuesday. “I wish every storefront would be occupied. The big problem is some of these properties I think are owned by people who won’t negotiate rent or fix up their buildings.”

She hopes people will either lower the rent or sell.

Angels Camp ‘is not dying’

Amanda Folendorf, an elected member of the City Council who is serving as mayor this year, said Tuesday, “Angels Camp is not dying. I share the same goals as Debbie, a hundred percent occupancy. I would like to see more businesses, restaurants and shops. There are some new businesses coming in.”

Folendorf mentioned a coffee shop planned next to Angels Creek Cafe, another food-and-beverage place across from the Calaveras County Visitors Bureau, Mountain Motivation Gifts & Apparel, and Yummy Ha! Ha! Ice Cream. All four new businesses are on South Main Street in downtown Angels Camp.

City management and staff along with Destination Angels Camp, the Angels Camp Business Association and the council are “working hard to maintain and bring business into Angels Camp including the downtown area,” Folendorf added Wednesday.

Downtown Main Street

There are at least 60 storefronts and other spaces on South Main from Angels Creek up to the Calaveras County Visitors Bureau at Hardscrabble Street and Raspberry Lane.

Residents, workers, owners of existing downtown businesses and promoters have different takes on what the dozen vacant storefronts mean in this town with roots predating the 1849 Gold Rush.

Some say the vacancies result from reduced vehicle traffic. Some say most Mother Lode towns on Highway 49 have vacancies. Some say it’s been this way a long time, and others say the trend is on the upswing.

Jon Van Wey, an Angels Camp resident since 2000, said Monday he believes downtown vacancies reflect changes in the way motorists drive in and around Angels Camp since the Highway 4 Bypass opened in 2009.

“Since then, we get less business in town and less traffic,” Van Wey said, standing on South Main south of Angels Creek and pointing toward Frogtown and New Melones. “This used to be the old 49 and 4 before the bypass. There was more traffic and I’d say there were more businesses downtown.”

Charli Baker, an Angels Camp native and waitress at Cascabel Restaurant at 1252 S. Main, said she believes there’s plenty of vehicle traffic in downtown Angels Camp, but few people stop.

“The cars here are busy but the foot traffic is not, whereas Murphys, there’s fewer vehicles and more people walking around,” Baker said Tuesday during a break after lunch hour. “It feels like here, Angels Camp, is not a destination as much as Murphys. Sonora has more shops and Murphys has more to do, with several wineries and wine-tasting. And the parking here is impossible.”

‘Typical for Angels Camp’

Pam Shoemaker, owner of Stories in Stones at 1249 S. Main, said Tuesday she’s been open 18 years and she believes the number of vacancies downtown is “typical for Angels Camp.”

There are a lot of mom-and-pop shops and some of them are underfunded, she said.

“They expect to make it in a couple years and it takes time,” Shoemaker said. “Sometimes people close after six months. If the Utica Hotel gets up and running that will be tremendous for downtown. It hasn’t been full opened and occupied since we got here in 1981.”

A sign in one of the windows at the Utica Hotel touts plans for “renovating this community treasure.” Another sign also warns the interior of at least one part of the hotel contains chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. They also urge people to follow the progress of the hotel’s rebirth on Facebook. The social media page was last updated in August 2017.

Kay Helling, owner of Gold Diggers Saloon for two years, said Tuesday she thinks the downtown occupancy rate is “horrible” and it seems like a lot of businesses have been vacant for years.

“I hear the Utica is on a 10-year plan,” Helling said. “Instead I’d like to see a place where we can buy underwear or a shirt.”

“Everybody has to go to Sonora to buy clothes, or Jackson,” customer Walt Guertin, a resident of Angels Camp since the 1980s, chimed in. “I was bartender here in the ‘80s and there were five bars in town then, four of them here downtown.”

At least three businesses downtown sell beer and wine, including Cascabel, but locals agree Gold Diggers Saloon is the only bar downtown right now.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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