Learn how three generations—a feisty grandmother, a visionary developer, and some daring millennials—are re-creating the place they all call home.
By Thea Marie Rood
In every historic town that dots the Gold Country, there is a dilemma: How do you retain your historic air but still function as a modern city? Go too far one way and you are a dusty museum young people flee and visitors come through just once; go too far the other way and you are a bland place, filled with strip malls and box stores, no “there there.”
One town searching for that proper balance is Sonora, California, the Tuolumne County seat, about 50 miles from the Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite National Park. It started off as a “hastily assembled” mining camp in 1848, and has experienced many cycles of boom and bust, not all due to the price of gold. Most recently, for example, the area was hit hard by the Economic Recession of ’08, the Rim Fire in ’13, the five-year drought (which badly damaged the nearby Stanislaus National Forest), and finally—when rain and snow returned with a vengeance this past winter—the destruction of Tioga Road, which cut off the main thoroughfare into the park for months.
In the face of these challenges, however, the town persevered—and even managed to prosper. “During the Rim Fire, we had 5,000 emergency responders here,” says Shirley Sarno, executive director of the Sonora Chamber of Commerce. “They filled hotel rooms and greatly added to our economy during the disaster.” In much the same vein, the Tuolumne Visitors Bureau encouraged park-goers to look past the road closure. “People said, ‘We can’t get into Yosemite,’” says Lisa Mayo, the bureau’s executive director. “But in our county, you could still get into Hetch Hetchy, see Gold Rush history and spectacular vistas of the High Sierra.” In fact, Mayo helped put together a lucrative live-streaming project from Columbia State Park and Hetch Hetchy Valley during this time. “It was watched by 111,000 people in China before they went to work,” she says with a grin. And all those logging trucks trundling through town this summer, taking out millions of dead, bark-beetle-riddled trees? Well, the forest service crews have to eat lunch somewhere. Not to mention stay overnight occasionally and buy lots of gas.
Scrappy though Sonora is, there is a new zeitgeist gaining momentum that involves thoughtfully turning its historic downtown into a place that has permanent relevance—for locals every day, and as a destination for vacationers. Most of the focus is on and around the town’s main drag—Washington Street—anchored on one end with the landmark “Red Church,” formally known as St. James Episcopal (circa 1859). (In true Sonoran fashion, the town has organized a sock fundraiser to support the parish’s ongoing restoration efforts—you can buy the socks at Downtown Shoes.) The street then meanders for several blocks of pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, benches and storefronts, where the 19th-century buildings are increasingly attracting new restaurateurs, merchants, coffee roasters and brewmasters. “It’s great to see the transformation taking place,” says Susan Wilson, publicist for the Visitors Bureau. “People are out walking in town now, morning to night, and the nightlife is nice. It’s a fun feeling—you want to be out there.”
Within blocks of Washington Street, Sonora has tree-lined neighborhoods of bungalows and cottages—and the occasional historic Victorian—leading some to think Sonora could be the very epitome of new consumer housing trends: People tired of McMansions and malls, country clubs and golf courses, idling on freeways, and instead opting for smaller homes, in a real town, filled with independently owned businesses they can walk to. Experts also suggest these trends dovetail with a longing for personal connections, quality relationships, mingling with neighbors you actually know at local community events. “There’s a genuineness here,” says Wilson about Sonora, where things like high school football games, senior prom and the annual Christmas parade still matter. “You can’t create that.”
It’s too soon to tell if the town can in fact become a major draw for tired techies, young couples, their downsizing parents or even a bigger proportion of the 3.8 million Yosemite visitors who go by on the highway out there every year. But there are several (surprising) factions who are willing to take that wager—and bet everything they have on it.
Connie Williams, 70, cuts a dashing figure around Sonora, with her distinctive silver hair, red lipstick and always-tasteful clothes. She is easy to spot on the road—her license plate reads MSMAYOR, a surprise gift from her husband, John, last Christmas— and she jokes, “People know who to shoot now.” But she is most often on foot, walking up and down Washington Street. She might be picking up signs advertising the current Stage 3 production (the local theater company where she chairs the board of directors), or checking the status of a city project (painting the historic sidewalk benches black, for instance). More frequently, however, she is darting in and out of downtown businesses, reassuring her longtime owners (“Yes, you should definitely stay open during the Round-up!”) or chatting up new merchants. “You are darling!” says one young entrepreneur when Williams cheerfully introduces herself. “I was just going to email you, in fact—I want you to do our ribbon-cutting next week.”
Despite Williams’ inexhaustible commitment to Sonora, she is not a native, but arrived from Atlanta, Georgia, in 2002 with her husband— purportedly to retire. The couple had worked long careers (Williams was an executive for Cox Enterprises, a media company), and have four grown children and six grandchildren—one of whom recently married. “So I guess I’ll probably be a great-grandmother soon,” Williams laughs. But the retired life didn’t suit her. “I got tired of hearing people complain about things (in town) and never do anything about them,” she says, so she joined the Tuolumne County Planning Commission to “learn how things worked.”
Since becoming mayor, she has worked closely with Vision Sonora, a forward-looking committee that focuses on an overall design for the town, marketing, outreach and financing (like approaching Caltrans for new sidewalks or bike lanes). But her personal appeal and hands-on approach is a big part of the new mood in town. “The magic word is ‘energy,’” she says, over a spicy version of “The Little Mac” at The Cheesy Winer, one of her favorite downtown restaurants. “The last six to eight months, the energy downtown has totally changed.”
She credits this not to herself, of course, but to several significant developments, including owners who are restoring their historic buildings, fun new businesses opening, two city parks spruced up for public use (including outdoor music), and more street events (such as 2nd Saturday Art Night and the Saturday morning farmers’ market). The major player, however, is Green Dog Brew Co., a $4 million construction project by developer Doug Kennedy. “Doug is the biggest economic driver in Sonora,” says Williams. “And so far, he’s been an excellent partner.”
Doug Kennedy, 47, started his career with the Phoenix Suns in the late ’80s, worked in the music industry as a tour manager in the ’90s and eventually helped launch PlayStation and Xbox. “I was living in the Bay Area, working in high tech,” he says, but had a vacation home near Sonora. “I used the foothills to unwind, get my head out of high tech.” And it finally occurred to him he could live and work full-time in the Gold Country he’d come to love— making his adopted hometown better in the process. “There were a lot of things happening in the Bay Area I wanted to see here,” he says.
He also noticed the area’s young people were leaving after high school—never to return. “I wanted to create jobs so local kids at least had the option of staying here—or coming back after college,” Kennedy says. In 2003, he co-founded Reverb Communications, Inc., a marketing and public relations agency that—among other things—promoted the video games Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Reverb also became the booking agent for Ironstone Vineyards’ popular summer concert series in nearby Murphys.
But he didn’t stop there. In 2013, he formed the Trado Restaurant Corp., and opened The Bourbon Barrel—which features a neon-lit wall of American-made bourbons as well as a seasonal menu—next door to Stage 3 Theater in downtown Sonora. “I wanted to make a solid investment for (locals),” he says, both in terms of “interesting places to go” and more jobs. In fact, many of his employees grew up here, including Trado’s event director, Cody Nelson. “He went to USC, but this is the reason he made the choice to come back home—he could find something in this area,” says Kennedy.
Kennedy’s newest project is even more ambitious, creating the Green Dog Brew Co., a beer and wine garden adjacent to The Bourbon Barrel and—in the process—building an expanded new home for Stage 3, with dressing rooms, state-of-the-art sound and lighting, rehearsal space and a large performance area. When theater productions aren’t in the works, Kennedy plans to bring in live music and other events; eventually he intends to brew his own line of craft beer. “The big thing is we’ll be a very unique venue,” he says. “We’ll have the bourbon, the theater, some retail—and Green Dog will have a wine sommelier and a beer cicerone, both onsite… It will be a place you can bring your dog, bring your family.”
It would be a cheap joke to suggest a dog-friendly, kid-friendly beer garden will attract millennials in droves, but it is fair to say Kennedy and Williams seem to have an innate understanding of this generation. And it is an admittedly quirky group—young, energetic and endlessly enthusiastic, but also wary of canned or corporate experiences.
This is where bringing young merchants to town is especially brilliant, because encouraging their creativity—whether you fully understand it or not—sets the mood and you can, to a certain extent, sit back and let it unfold. And no matter which generation you fall into, it is hard not to be charmed by the millennials setting up shop in downtown Sonora.
They are people like Nayland Chappell, a Santa Cruz transplant, who opened Sonora Tap Room in one of the area’s oldest buildings this past April, and quickly blew open the town’s nightlife with live music, stand-up comedy and 20 taps. Or Sarah Gordon, who owns a gorgeous place called The Bridal Loft, with chandeliers, exposed brick walls and hardwood floors, not to mention beautiful dresses, including plans for a “vintage” prom dress area in back, where girls can turn in last year’s model—worn only once—and pick out something “new.” Or there are friends Megan Bryant and Heather Schoon, just putting the finishing touches on their brick-and-mortar Love Couture, a previously online-only boutique with clothes for babies through teens.
Young parents and families are represented on the street as well.“I started this place because my youngest is finally in school,” says Laina Vann, owner of the newly-opened AMALA Detox & Tea Lounge, who credits her business plan to a serendipitous conversation at a park with two other mom friends (who are also now working with her). “There have just been a lot of magical things that have happened…and everyone here in town is so gracious.” Similarly, the site for Little Roots Toy Shop, owned by husband-and-wife team Ken and Kristen Hedges, was even picked out on a quiet winter night in 2015 by their then-baby daughter, Aspen, who pointed at the empty storefront as they walked by. The couple opened up Little Roots soon afterward, where they stock unique and handcrafted toys, many of them locally made. They consider the store their second home, and host monthly story times there during the day and community potlucks in the evenings. “I grew up in Sonora,” says Ken, “and was in the military… But the first year (I was gone), I bought a house here, so I knew I would come back.”