Chain stores: to ban, or not?
On Monday night the city's ad hoc committee on formula stores wandered around a number of issues that inspired creation of the committee to begin with, which was haltingly born in the aftermath of the Great Staples Revelation (GSR).
The GSR caught many people by surprise because no use permit was required since an office supply store is a conforming use in a building previously occupied by a 14,400 square foot Ford dealership. One day the building was empty, the next day it was going to be a Staples.
And if a Staples store could arrive so quietly, with no pre-conditions or constraints, some people asked, what would stop one of the new mini-Wal-Marts from slipping into town? Worse yet, what if a McDonalds snuck onto the Plaza?
So the ad hoc formula store committee was created to advise the Planning Commission and the City Council on steps they might take, if so inclined, to limit, regulate or ban formula stores where they would contaminate the historic and preferred ambiance of the city.
With committee chair Steve Barbose driving the process a little in the manner of herding cats, while his fellow city council member Tom Rouse participated via speakerphone from an airport motel room in Cleveland, the body eventually resolved four basic points.
First, that the trigger for banning formula stores should be any business with 10 or more outlets.
Second, that the proposed ban should be confined to the Plaza Retail Overlay Zone, which extends a half-block or so around the Plaza.
Third, that in commercial or mixed-use districts outside the Plaza overlay zone, a use permit would be required for formula stores, except in shopping centers with five or more tenants.
And fourth, the committee should hold yet another meeting.
We are sympathetic to the concern that McDonald's might invade the Plaza (although we wonder what the reaction would be if the invader was In-N-Out Burger instead) but we worry that an outright ban could exclude some creative, innovative and socially responsible businesses just because they own more than 10 outlets.
And while we all know that the downtown business district is suffering, we wonder if a more productive response wouldn't be a pro-active effort, enlisting the best business minds available, to develop a strategy for attracting more of the kinds of stores we say we want and supporting those we have. Rather than a focus on banning, why not a flat-out campaign on recruiting?
Healdsburg did something like that in 1993 through a citywide vision initiative that ended up transforming what had been an old and ugly downtown into what is now, some would argue, a more vibrant and commercially viable downtown than Sonoma's.
If Sonoma wants the right kinds of stores, will banning formula businesses attract them? Would we turn away Williams of Sonoma if they wanted to come back to Broadway? Would a Restoration Hardware be considered distasteful?
We share the public's concerns about protecting Sonoma's heritage and the locally-owned stores that make up our commercial core. But if a chain store ban were in place today we might not be getting a new Staples and, to be clear, we're glad Staples is here.