Williams-Sonoma must jump hurdles to return home

AP News
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Posted: Jan 19, 2012 6:48 AM
Williams-Sonoma must jump hurdles to return home

It's not easy going home. Particularly if you're a behemoth commercial enterprise and home is a quaint, historic town.

The first store of the upscale cookware giant Williams-Sonoma was here in the heart of wine country. But only for two years, as founder Chuck Williams quickly realized what a money-maker he had and moved the store to the bigger market of San Francisco.

Today, the $3 billion chain with some 250 stores nationwide wants to come home. It hopes to open a smaller, boutique version of the typical Williams-Sonoma outlet at the original site that first opened at 601 Broadway in 1956.

"Sonoma was Chuck's beloved home for many years, and the location of the first Williams-Sonoma store," said Rebecca Weill, a spokeswoman for Williams-Sonoma. "When we learned of this real estate opportunity, we thought what better way to honor Chuck than to bring his journey full circle."

But those plans are in flux as the city grapples with maintaining its local charm while growing its economy.

The City Council was prepared to vote on a temporary moratorium Wednesday that would have banned all chain stores from its historic downtown plaza. Though three of the five councilmembers were in favor of the temporary ban, they needed at least four to pass the interim edict, so they shelved it without a vote.

"There will be no moratorium of any kind on formula businesses in Sonoma," declared Mayor Joanna Sanders.

The City Council will now turn its focus to drafting a zoning ordinance that will establish a use-permit and possible ban on large-scale "formula" stores from what remains today the largest public square in California.

The city councilmembers insisted they had no intention of snubbing Williams-Sonoma. They simply want to maintain the city's historic charm and avoid the Starbucks, Applebee's and McDonalds from taking over their historic plaza, since there currently is no legislation in place to prevent just that.

"Williams-Sonoma is a special case and they deserve special treatment," Councilmember Ken Brown said in an interview before the City Council meeting. "It doesn't mean that every other formula store and chain gets the same pass. So in my opinion, the dialogue is far from over. If I were Williams-Sonoma, I would encourage them to pursue their dreams of coming home."

Not everyone is as welcoming.

Stuart Teitelbaum, owner of the Homegrown Baking Co., had urged the City Council to pass the temporary moratorium.

"I too would be proud to say that I'm from a town that refused the onslaught of large business and maintained its character, steadfast in the face of possible economic consequences," he said.

Sanders hopes the zoning kerfuffle won't scare off the kitchenware giant that has become a household name.

She is opposed to any chain-store regulations in the city that was once the capital of the California Republic in the 1800s, and believes there is room for growth while conserving the charm of the rural community nestled in the Sonoma Valley.

"It's a business that has become somewhat of a household name," she said of Williams-Sonoma. "And with that, it has tugged us along behind in the little red wagon. Sonoma is on the map as a tourist destination, a premier wine-country venue, a historic town _ partly because of that name recognition."

Sonoma City Manager Linda Kelly said that Williams-Sonoma planners met with city officials last week. She said they want to open a smaller version of its typical mall outlet, one that would honor its origins.

The store would not be on the main historic plaza, but would still have to meet new criteria if the draft ordinance is passed, namely that it promotes diversity, is compatible with the town's historic character and adds to the economic vitality of Sonoma.

City planners said Williams-Sonoma currently is negotiating the contract on the property where Chuck Williams, 97, first started selling his high-end cookware imported from France.

"They want to make it more of a destination store," Kelly said. "They want to go back to their roots and showcase their history."

Kelly said they intend to use old photos and some of the original appliances that Williams himself first sold; there would be guest chefs and cooking demonstrations. And a small retail outlet.

The owners of the most popular kitchenware store in town are torn about the possible return of the retail giant responsible for revolutionizing the way many Americans cook by bringing a European sensibility into their kitchens.

"It's a tremendous question mark," said Laura Havlek, when asked whether Williams-Sonoma would hurt her business. She has owned the Sign of the Bear Kitchenware store with her husband, Stephen, since 1991. It overlooks the landmark stone City Hall and meandering duck pond in the heart of the plaza where the grizzly bear once graced the California Republic flag.

"It's an issue where you really can see both sides," she said. "Williams-Sonoma has done so much to advance the industry; I think about how much innovation that store created."

On the other hand, said the Sonoma native, "This is a town I've loved my whole life. I'm struck by how beautiful it is and how fortunate we are and when you look around the square, what makes it so special are all of the local merchants."

Several doors down from Sign of the Bear is the Charles Creek Vineyard wine store. Manager Alan Wastell, another Sonoma native, said rumors are rampant about the possible return of Williams-Sonoma.

"The fact that there is no Williams-Sonoma in the county of Sonoma _ that's a kind of interesting irony," he said. "Change is not all good or bad. Change is change. But I would not like to see change become fast-food and strip malls."

While there is a Chico's clothing store and a Ben & Jerry's on the plaza, there are no Starbucks and most of the stores, boutiques and restaurants, pottery, artisan cheese and wine stores are locally owned. Some have been there for decades.

The debate was sparked when a Staples store was allowed to open last year on the outskirts of town. Some locals worried it was the slippery slope toward looking like every other bland California town peppered with Targets and Trader Joe's.

Sanders notes that while there was a hue and cry over Whole Foods coming to town several years ago and putting the local Sonoma Market out of business, the two have gone on to thrive.

"Sonoma Market is still wildly successful and the city is better off for it; there's competition and we get better service," she said.