Private investment in downtown Sonora is expected to fuel a transformation over the next year that a city-driven revitalization plan has been unable to accomplish.
Trendy new drinking and eating establishments have already begun to replace the empty storefronts on Washington Street that numbered in the dozens earlier this year.
Bourbon Barrel owner Doug Kennedy also recently broke ground on his much-anticipated beer and wine garden next to Stage 3 Theatre on Green Street.
“The plan is to really get people to start coming back to downtown Sonora,” said Kennedy at the new Stockton Road headquarters of his company, Trado Restaurant Corporation, which will help promote and coordinate events in the downtown area.
In an interview Tuesday, Kennedy revealed that his beer and wine garden will be called Green Dog Beer Co. The establishment will also manufacture and sell its own “dog-themed” line of beers that he hopes to produce locally once he finds a location.
The garden will be connected to the building that houses both the Bourbon Barrel, another creation of Kennedy’s that opened last year, and Stage 3.
Kennedy said he wants to squash rumors that he is edging the theater company out of the building. A full play season is planned for 2017 following the renovation, with dates to be announced in Thursday’s Union Democrat Weekender.
Stage 3 Production Manager Rocky Rhoades said the theater’s former area for building sets, which is where the beer and wine garden will be located, was recently moved into a larger, 3,000-square-foot space on the second floor of the building at the corner of Green and Church streets.
“We have a bigger scene shop now than most regional and community theaters I’ve worked for,” said Rhoades.
The project will also expand the theater’s capacity from 85 to potentially 200 seats, in addition to creating space for rehearsals.
Once it’s all said and done, Kennedy said he will likely have invested more than $4 million purchasing and renovating the buildings. Rhoades said the theater has fully supported Kennedy’s plans from the beginning.
“From the theater’s perspective, no one has cooperated with us more and worked harder than Doug,” he said.
Kennedy achieved success in the video-game industry in the early 2000s assisting with the launch of Microsoft’s Xbox console. In 2002, he co-founded the Twain Harte-based video-game marketing, sales and publishing company, Reverb Communications Inc., with his wife, Tracie Snitker Kennedy, who is also a partner in Trado Restaurant Corporation.
Previously, Kennedy has worked in sales, marketing and merchandising for the Phoenix Suns professional basketball team. He also helped launch the Vans Warped Tour, an annual punk-rock music festival that’s still going strong, and bring the Ironstone Vineyards summer concert series to prominence.
Kennedy wants to use his expertise in business and entertainment to help restore vibrancy to Sonora’s downtown commercial district that’s been crippled by a string of crises in recent years, including the 2013 Rim Fire, federal government shutdown and drought.
“I think there is a level of excitement that’s taking place,” he said, pointing to the recent addition of the Cheesy Winer and other new establishments planned to open next year.
To ensure there’s a steady flow of customers throughout the year to support the burgeoning downtown scene, Kennedy has hired a team of people who will help coordinate and promote events among the bars and restaurants from the new headquarters at 55 Stockton Road.
Kennedy said he also plans to hold two to four events each year at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds, such as a craft-beer festival, and is in negotiations with Bank of America to use its parking lot adjacent to the future beer and wine garden for holding concerts or street festivals.
“Tourists will be more likely stay when there are more events and things happening downtown,” he said.
Kennedy estimated the beer and wine garden will create 20 to 30 new jobs, including cooks, servers, bartenders, retail sales and security. He plans to begin putting out advertisements for positions early next year.
Other new businesses slated to open early next year include the Sonora Tap Room at 1 Linoberg St. and Yoshoku Ramen Noodle Bar at 110 S. Washington St.
Sonora couple John and Shauna Chin are hoping to bring a popular urban trend to the foothills with Yoshoku Ramen Noodle Bar, which is scheduled to open Jan. 12. They moved to the area in May 2014.
“We think it will do really well bringing a new concept to Sonora,” said John Chin, CEO and head chef. “Personally, I like cooking and trying new stuff.”
Chin hopes his business, the beer and wine garden and others will help bring more foot traffic to the downtown area.
The Sonora Tap Room, which will be located in the brick building that formerly housed Cole Video, is planned to serve 15 to 20 different types of craft and local beers as well as wine. The owners, Nayland Chappell, 35, and Carey Merrill, 36, moved to the area from Santa Cruz in October 2015.
Chappell previously worked as an interior designer in the Bay Area and Merrill has his own business doing ornamental metal works, which they plan to incorporate into the decor of the tap room.
Construction is expected to start this week, with an opening tentatively slated for February. The plans for the building renovation were submitted last week and require approval from the Sonora Fire Department and Tuolumne County Environmental Health Department.
“These old buildings are just so cool and that’s part of what I was excited about,” Chappell said. “Just kind of restoring it and doing something in there.”
Chappell hopes to help convince the city to approve a permanent closure of the eastern segment of Linoberg Street between Washington and Stewart streets, a proposal that has generated controversy locally both recently and in the past.
At a meeting early next year, the Sonora City Council is expected to consider approving a traffic study that would determine whether the closure is feasible. Chappell said the closure would allow them to provide outdoor seating and have live music events.
The closure is recommended as part of the Vision Sonora Plan, approved by the council in 2013 as a list of projects and programs intended to improve the downtown economy and mobility. None of the major projects in the plan have come to fruition due to a lack of funding.
Despite some recent incidents downtown involving bar fights, Kennedy said he thinks the new businesses will cater to a different clientele that will eventually edge out troublemakers and homeless people.
Kennedy said one thing the city could do to improve the situation is re-enact a ban on outdoor camping that was previously in effect from August through December 2014, before failing to gain enough support from the Sonora City Council for renewal on Jan. 20, 2015.
“It is not normal for a town that wants to bring in tourists having people camping everywhere,” Kennedy said. “I think we need to say there needs to be some rules in place if we’re going to be making these capital investments.”
Kennedy wants to assemble a bar and restaurant association for better coordination among the businesses and lobby for their interests. He plans to get the owners together for a meeting on the concept sometime after the holidays.
By this time next year, Kennedy expects downtown Sonora to seem like a much different place.
“By the end of the summer, we’re all going to look back and be like, ‘Wow, this town is a radically different place,’ “ he said.