Williams-Sonoma Must Jump Hurdles To Return Home

Published January 18, 2012 11:18PM (EST)

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 wants to build a store at the same site in Sonoma where it first opened more than a half century ago, but it could be thwarted by a City Council proposal that calls for a moratorium on chain stores in the city's historic district. The five-member City Council is expected to vote on a moratorium on chain stores Wednesday night as it drafts a zoning ordinance that will regulate and possibly ban "formula" stores with at least 250 outlets.

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 did not return calls to its corporate headquarters in San Francisco.

It did meet 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, one that would honor its origins. The store would not be on the main historic plaza, but would have to meet new criteria not currently on the books if 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.

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 stores, boutiques, restaurants, and pottery, artisan cheese and wine stores are locally owned. Some have been there for decades.

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."

By Salon Staff

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