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Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce Hosts Well-Attended Forum on Formula Businesses

In a direct response to the concerns of its members about the possibility of an uptick in chain/formula businesses in downtown, the Mill Valley Chamber organized an information-laden workshop on the subject on November 5, 2019, bringing together the leadership of local officials and experienced business owners from beyond Mill Valley as panel speakers.

Chamber Co-Director Paula Reynolds kicked off the discussion: “The question is, should Mill Valley manage or restrict formula business, and if so, how? What are the intended and unintended impacts of restricting formula businesses, and how do you effectively balance the desire to retain Mill Valley’s small-town character with its need to remain economically viable?”

The event began with information, both from handouts and a panel of knowledgeable folks on the subject, including City of Sausalito Mayor Joe Burns and Sausalito Chamber of Commerce CEO Juli Vieira, who spoke about their city’s regulations on formula businesses. City of Mill Valley Planning and Building Director Patrick Kelly was on hand to discuss the City’s existing regulations and possible tweaks to those regulations. Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly, the owner of the Heliotrope skin care product store in San Francisco and a board member of the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association.

As a foundation for the discussion, there are no City of Mill Valley regulations explicitly intended to prohibit chain businesses, loosely defined as stores/restaurants with multiple locations – more than 10 in many instances – and standardized signage and branding.

Though he wasn’t with the City at the time, Planning and Building Director Patrick Kelly spoke about the last time Mill Valley dove deeply into the issue of chain businesses, specifically in 2012, when a Marin franchisee for Subway attempted to open in the space at 29 Miller Ave., where Baskin Robbins had been located for 43 years. Faced with an outpouring of opposition at multiple hearings, the Planning Commission rejected the application, and the City Council rebuffed a subsequent appeal of that rejection. At the time, some businesses owners saw inconsistencies with the rejection of Subway coming in the aftermath of the approval of the then-43 store Pet Food Express in Alto Plaza. City officials leaned on the distinction between downtown, "the primary commercial and civic center for the community," which has a "number of small businesses operated by independent proprietors who are actively involved in the community," and the areas outside of downtown. The City also leaned heavily on its Core Values, which call for the "preservation of a vibrant community that respects Mill Valley’s small town character," as well as "economic vitality with an emphasis on small and local serving businesses."

Another panel speaker added that Mill Valley already had a deep, much-envied brand as an arts destination with venues like the Sweetwater Music Hall, Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley Film Festival, Fall Arts Festival, Throckmorton Theatre and much more. The Community Vitality section of the City's MV2040 General Plan echoes this sentiment, noting that the arts sector "draws thousands of local residents and visitors into town each year to patronize Mill Valley stores and restaurants."

A consistent theme throughout the discussion on November 5, 2019 was that one set of regulations shouldn't be applicable across each of Mill Valley's commercial districts. “We do have to be cognizant that there are a bunch of different needs here and we’re trying to meet them,” Councilmember Stephanie Moulton-Peters said. “It’s a balancing act. People that work here versus those who are not going to want to eat at the 7-Eleven.”

Planning and Building Director Kelly said he’d recent attended a conference on the future of retail, and that “one of the takeaways for a planner is the need to be flexible with these ordinances. But I truly believe that we all need certainty, so if there’s a desire by the community to put some sideboards on formula-type businesses, we need to tell that story with certainty.”

<Article courtesy of Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce>