Construction is almost complete on the much-anticipated Sonora Armory, a beer garden, restaurant and live-entertainment complex in downtown Sonora, but it will not open unless someone buys it, the owner, Doug Kennedy told The Union Democrat this week.
Kennedy said he no longer wants to do business in Sonora because of the number of obstacles he encountered since the start of development two years ago, minimal investment in the downtown area by the city, and what he perceives as a lack of forward-thinking on the part of its leadership.
“I want to see Sonora thrive, I love Sonora, but I just think there’s a lot of things that need to change,” he said. “I wouldn’t have poured the time, money and energy into it if I didn’t believe in Sonora.”
City officials say they’ve done their best to accommodate Kennedy throughout the process and point to other bars and restaurants that have opened while his project has been in development.
The project was announced in early 2016 and construction began a year later.
Many early supporters hoped the project and Kennedy’s plans for promotions to draw visitors would help fuel an economic resurgence in Sonora’s historic downtown.
Moving family to Florida
Kennedy listed the Armory property with Restaurant Exchange, a Sacramento-based commercial real estate agency, but put it on hold while the final work is being completed.
His previous price through the same agency was $5 million. Earlier this year, he said he typically puts his businesses that are in development up for sale prior to completion.
On Monday, he didn’t want to discuss the specifics of how much he invested, though in the past he’s said it was more than $1 million.
Kennedy has lived mostly in Florida for the past two years while running a video game company called Studio Wildcard, developer of the popular title “ARK: Survival Evolved” that has sold millions of copies.
He was in Japan this week for the Tokyo Game Show to meet with potential distributors for his game in Southeast Asia.
His house in Twain Harte is also for sale, and his wife and three children are planning to move with him to Florida sometime next year.
Kennedy plans to stay involved with managing the annual summer concert series at Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys, something he helped launch in 2004 with his business partner, Larry Richter, who also lives in Florida.
Problems with the city
Kennedy hasn’t been in Sonora since mid-June, but he may be in town this weekend while traveling for business related to his career in the video-game industry.
When asked whether seeing all of the work that’s been done to the facility would possibly change his mind to sell, Kennedy’s response was “doubtful.”
“I’ve always known how great the facility was going to look, that was never in question,” Kennedy said, adding that his decision is based on his issues with the city.
Kennedy faced an immediate obstacle when the approval of his plans was delayed by the Sonora Planning Commission for a month.
Residents on the hill above, including City Engineer Jerry Fuccillo, complained about potential noise that the project would generate, and more noise studies were required before the commission gave its approval.
Kennedy said he started looking at properties in Murphys but was convinced to stay in Sonora by a number of supporters in the city.
After the project’s approval, Kennedy said he encountered “endless red tape” from regulatory agencies and utilities that continued to sour his feelings for doing business both in Sonora and greater Tuolumne County.
“I’m not looking for favoritism, but maybe sticking a fork in the guy pouring this money into downtown Sonora isn’t the best idea,” he said. “I’m not even mad about it, I’m just baffled.”
That was followed by issues Kennedy ran into with Stage 3 Theatre Co., a nonprofit community theater that used to occupy part of what’s now the Armory building.
Plans were for Stage 3 to return before there was a public falling out between Kennedy and then-Mayor Connie Williams, who also serves as chairman of the theater’s board of directors.
The theater had considered suing Kennedy earlier this year, but has since dropped the idea and moved on.
In the midst of that, Kennedy said he became frustrated with a growing number of detractors in the community.
There were accusations about him getting approval for county transit buses to take people to and from the Unruly Country Brew N’ Cue Festival at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds in September 2017, an event he sponsored through his Trado Restaurant Corporation that featured a number of big-name country musicians.
Some of Kennedy’s critics over the past couple years have also pointed to his sometimes brash comments on social media, though he said he can’t change anyone’s opinion if they just don’t like him.
“I can go back and say maybe there are some comments I wouldn’t have made or things I wouldn’t have done, but people who know me know who I am and the bottom line is I’m very honest,” he said. “A lot of people don’t like hearing the truth and don’t want honest answers.”
Kennedy has been vocal about homeless people in the city and believes they are attracted by free meals and other resources offered by local nonprofit groups and churches.
He commented on Facebook over the weekend that he had plans to rent a bus that would bring 100 to 200 more homeless people to the city as a “parting gift,” but he said Monday he was joking.
However, the final straw for Kennedy came when the Sonora City Council approved a state-funded project in August that would place a bus stop and transit shelter in front of his Trado Restaurant Corporation headquarters at 55 Stockton Road.
The project would result in the loss of parking spaces in his lot that Kennedy believes will hurt the property’s value.
Kennedy’s San Jose attorney, Trevor Zink, is preparing a lawsuit against the city claiming that Williams voted for the location of the bus stop in retaliation for the falling out that left Stage 3 without a home.
Zink said the lawsuit should be filed in the next week or two, though Kennedy’s travel schedule has caused some delays.
Kennedy said he also believes the city should be doing more to invest in downtown, such as installing parking meters or levying an improvement tax to generate revenue specifically for projects to improve sidewalks and other infrastructure.
“Sonora cries poor nonstop,” he said. “Not enough money, can’t afford this or that, but they want to live like it’s the 1950s.”
Mayor Jim Garaventa said the idea of a downtown improvement tax has been discussed, but he’s found there’s not a lot of support for it through talking to merchants and people around town.
Garaventa said he’s sorry that Kennedy feels the way he does, but he doesn’t believe the city is doing anything to create a bad environment for businesses.
“There are other similar businesses that have come in and seemingly flourished in the time that his project has been in development,” Garaventa said, specifically citing the Sonora Tap Room and Winter’s Tavern Motherlode Grill.
As far as the red tape goes, Garaventa said the city doesn’t have additional regulations on top what the state requires and likely has less than other areas.
“Everybody has to go through a certain process, and I will say things don’t always happen in a timely manner,” Garaventa said. “We have a small staff, and it’s a pretty large project for a small town.”
Garaventa said he understood why Kennedy would be angry about the location of the proposed bus stop in the concept drawings, but he voted in favor of the project because he thought there was room to move the final location slightly to where both sides could reach an agreement.
The bus stop will not just serve local riders, but also tour buses, YARTS to Yosemite National Park, and buses to Dodge Ridge Ski Area in the winter.
“He may not want a bus stop anywhere near there, and that’s his prerogative, but we’re trying to help the greater good,” he said.
Sparing no expense
Despite not planning to open the Armory himself, Kennedy hasn’t stopped investing toward the project’s completion.
“I wasn’t going to leave a half-finished building,” he said of his reasons for completing the project, despite not planning to open it himself. “I wanted to see my vision through, and hopefully someone will pick up the torch and run with it.”
A crew from Boyer Construction, the general contractor for the project, was inside of the Armory on Tuesday helping to complete some of the finishing touches.
Kennedy appears to have spared no expense in the project’s development. He pointed to his continued investment as proof that his reason for wanting to sell is not a financial decision.
There’s extensive custom stone, metal and wood work throughout the inside and outside.
The building’s main entrance off South Green Street leads into a foyer that branches off into four sections.
Directly inside the front door to the left is a giant custom-built barrel that was planned to serve as the entrance for the expanded Bourbon Barrel, a bar and restaurant Kennedy launched in late 2015 before he purchased the entire building the following year.
Bathrooms for the complex are on the right directly inside the main entrance and feature custom built urinals crafted out of beer kegs.
Down the hall past the entrance to Bourbon Barrel there’s a room that was envisioned to be the Armory’s retail store, which has a wall covered in barrel staves arranged in a thatched pattern.
The live-entertainment venue is at the end of the hall and includes a bar, soundbooth, and VIP area. Vintage signs collected by Kennedy decorate the walls.
Large roll-up doors lead to the outside beer garden that was to be called Green Dog Beer Co.
Behind the curved copper-top bar are 24 taps that Kennedy had planned to feature beer brewed exclusively for the business. He said eventually he wanted to buy another building in the city to brew the beer.
On the far side of the garden are stairs and an elevator that lead to an upper patio where people would also be able to sit.
Behind the garden is an interior hallway that leads to the kitchen, which would serve the entire complex, as well as dressing rooms for entertainment acts booked to perform at the venue.
The complex could accommodate up to about 375 people at full capacity.
“There was a lot of creativity and personal attention paid to every single detail of that building,” Kennedy said. “The only sad thing is I wish those contractors could see the fruits of their labor flourishing downtown.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.