Talulah’s Restaurant has joined a growing list of businesses in downtown Sonora that have shut down, or will soon, because their owners decided to retire.

Katharine Payne, the owner and executive chef, said she closed on May 5, after 12 years. While she’s seen a slight decline in business over the past two years, she remains optimistic about the city’s historic commercial district.

“I loved having a business here and being embraced by this community,” she said. “It’s a desirable area, and a younger generation is coming in with fresh, new ideas.”

Some see the closures as an alarming trend, while others say it has been worse.

An informal survey conducted by The Union Democrat found 15 of the nearly 115 storefronts along Washington Street were empty or had a business in the process of closing, a vacancy rate of about 13 percent.

The storefronts that are filled feature a variety of businesses, including retail stores, restaurants, bars, coffee and tea shops, law offices, insurance brokers, graphic designers, beauty salons, and a sewing school.

“I’ve been in business here for 16 years and seen a lot of closures, and a lot of them were from people not making it, but these are mostly longtime business owners who are retiring,” said Margie Paxton-Fromm, owner of Legends, Books, Antiques and Old-Fashioned Soda Fountain on South Washington Street.

Paxton-Fromm said the fact that some of the owners were able to stay in business for decades is a positive sign about downtown’s viability and that some of the pessimism over the recent closures is detrimental.

“It makes it seem like downtown is falling apart, and it’s not,” she said.

Legends and the building that houses it, which is also owned by Paxton-Fromm, are listed for sale on the commercial real-estate website LoopNet for $550,000.

Paxton-Fromm said she also plans to retire when she finds the right buyer, whom she hopes will continue her legacy.

“My husband has been retired for two years and he’s waiting for me to move on,” she said. “I’ve been working hard all of my life, and it’s time.”

Others have said increasing rental costs and a decline in sales due to competition from online marketplaces like Amazon were factors that drove them out of business or prompted them to move from downtown Sonora, including Banyan Tree, Let’er Buck and Sonora Used Books.

Mark Endicott, whose Benjamin Fig art and import shop at 129 S. Washington St. has been in business for 42 years, said he believes more stores will close over the next two to three years because of Amazon.

“I think we’re seeing the sunset of brick and mortar retail nationwide, both big and small,” he said.

Endicott said it felt like downtown was on a steady upward trajectory in the years leading up to the recession of 2008, which led to a number of people going out of business.

As the economy slowly recovered, however, Endicott said Amazon became a bigger force in the retail industry and negated much of the progress locally.

Derek Nunes, owner of PhoneSmart at 27 S. Washington St., said he’s noticed a societal change in the way people spend money and consume goods and how many major companies are shifting to a more service-based model.

“You got Alibaba who’s the largest retailer in the world and has no actual inventory, Uber is the largest taxi service without any cars of their own, Airbnb has the largest accommodations and no actual property holdings,” he said.

Nunes said he believes local businesses must adapt to the changing environment, in particular by offering something that people can’t get elsewhere.

While tourism is Tuolumne County’s top economic engine, with visitors spending as much as $264 million a year, Nunes believes the downtown area also needs to give a reason for locals to come and spend money year round.

“We don’t have a lot of attractions for locals to come downtown,” he said. “I know a lot don’t come downtown because they’re worried about parking, and it’s just easier for them to go somewhere else.”

Jim Hildreth, who served on the council in the 1980s and early 1990s, said he feels the city government needs to foster a better relationship with the downtown merchants and do more to make the area more inviting.

“This is a mini mall, and it needs to be cleaned,” he said while standing outside his office on South Washington Street. “How many years do we have to plead for public bathrooms, parking, and where’s the Greenley Road Extension?”

The Greenley Road Extension is a planned bypass of downtown Sonora that would take an estimated 5,000 vehicles per day off of Washington Street, which has as many as 18,000 vehicles traveling on it per day.

Transportation planners since the 1970s have listed the 1.2-mile extension that would connect Greenley Road to Highway 49 north of the city as a top priority, but a lack of funding and opposition from landowners have kept it from becoming a reality.

With new funding from the state’s gas tax and vehicle fee increases, planners hope the project could happen with the next five to 10 years. The Sonora City Council contributed $250,000 last year toward a new study of the project that’s currently underway.

John Williams, owner of Mountain Home Gifts at 87 S. Washington St., said he believes the merchants and building owners could contribute to improving the cleanliness by sweeping and power washing the sidewalks outside of their businesses and maintaining their facades.

Williams said he regularly sweeps the sidewalk, scrapes gum off the pavement and pulls weeds from cracks.

The Sonora native said he’s not particularly concerned about the turnover because spaces have been filling up relatively quickly compared to other cycles, but he will become concerned if they remain vacant for a lengthy period.

Williams has been pushing for making downtown the focal point of marketing for the city, because many tourists who come into his store tell him that it’s what they believe makes Sonora unique.

“That’s why it’s a shame it’s so poorly taken care of,” he said.

Williams said downtown doesn’t need an economic development agency because they tend to focus on corporate businesses, which he believes would hurt the image they have cultivated.

The vast majority of businesses downtown are what Williams refers to as “self starters,” meaning people who came up with a fresh idea from the ground up. He cited The Naked Frog soap and bath-products shop that recently replaced the Ventana Art Gallery and Formosa that sells boba tea as examples.

Reggie Kramer, an artist who’s part of the collective that runs Aloft Art Gallery on South Washington Street, said she believes it’s a coincidence that so many businesses are closing.

“Maybe it will be an opportunity for more young people to come up here and start businesses and downtown will be more vibrant than ever,” she said.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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