Some power washed or swept sidewalks Thursday morning in downtown Sonora, while others got on their hands and knees to scrape gum off of the concrete.
Among them were business owners, employees, community members, and even a few homeless men, who all joined forces to make the city’s historic shopping district a cleaner place.
“We hope that the city sees this is important to us,” said Cindy Zelinsky, owner of Emberz at 177 S. Washington St. “It’s not just words. We want to be part of the solution.”
Roughly 30 people participated in the effort that spanned several hours beginning before 8 a.m.
The idea came out of a meeting Zelinsky hosted at her restaurant last month with about a dozen other downtown merchants.
“We just felt like it wasn’t getting done, and the cleanliness of downtown affects all of our businesses,” she said.
Part of the reason for doing the cleaning on Thursday was to get the downtown area looking nicer for the monthly Second Saturday Art Night event this weekend, which typically draws hundreds of people.
Zelinsky promoted the effort on Facebook to encourage participation and spent $300 purchasing cleaning supplies that included buckets, rags, brushes, and scapers.
There were also five people who brought power washers to spray down the sidewalks that hadn’t been properly cleaned in what appeared to be years.
“If you’re seeing the filth coming off these sidewalks, that’s not just from a weekend,” Zelinsky said. “That’s from neglect.”
Zelinsky believes business license fees should be used to pay for a regular sidewalk maintenance program.
The city’s fee for a business license ranges from $70 to $1,500 per year depending on the number of employees.
About $120,000 a year is collected from the fees and goes into the city’s General Fund that’s roughly $5 million on average and pays for most services, including police, fire, and public works, as well as the salaries and benefits of most city employees and officials.
There’s an additional fee ranging from $75 to $300 for businesses within the downtown area that helps fund city-sponsored special events, such as the Old West Fest last month.
The additional fees were projected to provide $17,000 in revenue during the current fiscal year.
“They’re doing these events downtown without consulting any of us, just put that money into cleaning the sidewalks,” Zelinsky said.
There has been much debate about the viability of the downtown area due to several longtime businesses on Washington Street closing in the past few months.
Zelinsky believes the string of closures is more or less part of a natural cycle and not indicative of the downtown’s overall economic health.
“I think downtown will always be a living, breathing being,” she said. “If we only focus on the negative, then that’s all people will remember.”
A lack of branding and marketing by the city is what Zelinsky believes is holding back the downtown area.
Zelinsky said her restaurant typically sees between 300 to 500 customers per day, but no one from the city has ever asked her about who they are, where they come from and why they’re here.
City Council members from other towns have come into Zelinsky’s restaurant and attempted to get her to move her business or open a new one there, and she hopes members of the Sonora City Council are doing the same in other places.
“We have to actively solicit the businesses that we want,” she said. “You’re not going to get something you want if you don’t seek it out.”
Zelinsky said she was proud of the merchants who helped with the cleanup and believes it shows they can be a force when they work together.
They’re planning to meet on a monthly basis now to come up with other initiatives.
Zelinsky recently purchased $2,600 worth of radio ads to promote downtown Sonroa and attract more Tuolumne County residents from outside of the city limits, with $300 coming from Servente’s Saloon and Market at 64 S. Washington St.
Marianne Wright, owner of Servente’s, helped with the cleanup and said she believes it will improve the city’s image.
“It just shows visitors that we care and we’re on an uphill swing,” she said. “As things start to lag, we come together and lift things up.”
Wright opened her business in January and said it has been doing well. She’s also heard that others are doing well and pointed to new businesses that are opening as a reason for optimism.
One of those new businesses that will soon be opening is the city’s first microbrewery, the Sonora Brewing Co., which will be connected to the Lighthouse Deli at 28 S. Washington St.
Thomas Silva, owner of both businesses, said he’s felt a “positive vibe” among the merchants in the downtown area since he purchased the deli late last year.
“It shows our commitment to keep the city clean and to help our fellow businesses,” Silva said of the cleanup effort on Thursday.
Councilman Mark Plummer was helping with the cleanup on Thursday as well.
Plummer said he would like to see the city launch a regular sidewalk maintenance program, but he believes there isn’t enough money in the budget for it.
It wasn’t just people living or working in the downtown area who were part of the effort on Thursday.
Paul Sutton, of Twain Harte, runs a business called Sutton GEC that’s not located in the downtown area, but he brought his power washer to help.
“It’s part of the economy and bring people in and helps feed my family,” Sutton said of what downtown Sonora means to Tuolumne County as a whole.
There were also several people who live in the homeless camps off Stockton Road who helped the merchants.
Nancy Scott, who runs the nonprofit Nancy’s Hope thrift store in Columbia, said she heard about the cleanup and rounded up some people at the camps to show that they are part of the community as well.
Scott planned to get them something to eat before taking them back to the camps after they were done.
Michael Rogers has been homeless since his mother died in 2016 and was wiping down windows of storefronts on Thursday.
“The business owners apparently think the homeless are out here trashing the place, but we’re not,” he said. “We wanted to come out here and help to show that we’re just people trying to survive.”
Tom Hinnard, 64, who’s also homeless and recovering from a broken neck, was walking up and down Washington Street picking up trash with a litter grabber.
Hinnard said the reason he wanted to help when he heard about the cleanup is simple.
“It’s in my nature to help people,” he said.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.