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Williams-Sonoma must jump hurdles to return home

Williams-Sonoma must jump hurdles to return home

January 20th, 2012 in News

SONOMA, Calif. (AP) - Chuck Williams first opened his little shop in Sonoma in the heart of Northern California wine country in 1956 - and eventually saw it grow into the Williams-Sonoma chain that is now worth some $3 billion.

The cookware giant now wants to build a store at the same site in Sonoma where it first opened more than a half century ago, but is facing hurdles as the Sonoma City Council considers a zoning ordinance to regulate chain stores in the city's historic district.

The City Council planned to vote on a temporary moratorium on chain stores from its downtown plaza while it drafts a permanent zoning ordinance that will regulate and possible ban "formula" stores from its historic city center. But when it became clear the four of five votes needed to pass the urgent moratorium were not there, they shelved the issue until they could discuss it further.

Mayor Joanne Sanders worries the proposed ordinance could hurt the local economy for the 10,000 residents in the town that was once the capital of the California Republic in the 1800s. The small-business owner is opposed to chain-store regulations and believes there is room for growth while maintaining the charm of the rural community nestled in the Sonoma Valley.

"It's a business that has become somewhat of a household name," Sanders 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."

She believes the kitchenware store would draw more tourists to Sonoma and create badly needed jobs.

Williams-Sonoma spokeswoman Rebecca Weill released a statement describing the city as having "tremendous significance to Williams-Sonoma" and to its founder, Chuck Williams.

"When we learned of this real estate opportunity, we thought what better way to honor Chuck than to bring his journey full circle," the statement said. "Our goal is to connect to our roots and honor Chuck's legacy by creating a space of historical significance."

The company met with city officials last week to present its plans. City planners say Williams-Sonoma wants to open a smaller, boutique-style version of its typical outlet. The store would not be on the main historic plaza, but would have to meet new criteria not currently on the books if the current language of the draft ordinance is approved.

City planners said Williams-Sonoma Inc. is negotiating the contract on the property where Chuck Williams, now 97, first started selling his high-end cookware imported from France. There are now more than 250 Williams-Sonoma stores nationwide. The company also owns the housewares and furniture behemoth Pottery Barn.

While there is a Chico's clothing store and a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop on Sonoma's main plaza, there are no Starbucks, and most of the boutiques, restaurants, pottery, artisan cheese and wine-tasting stores are locally owned.

City Councilmember Ken Brown said that while he favors the ordinance to regulate large-scale chain stores, there are always exceptions to the rules, and Williams-Sonoma would likely be one of them.

"You have to take into consideration as to who this is," Brown said. "Mr. Williams founded his empire in Sonoma and that counts here in Sonoma."