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Downtown Dreams Dashed
City efforts to transform downtown Ceres into a destination location have never looked as bleak as they do now.

The hopes of Ceres officials, who two years ago invested $350,000 in a growth blueprint to regenerate downtown into a destination shopping district, were dashed when Governor Jerry Brown pirated redevelopment agency funds statewide. Add that to economic uncertainties in California and you have a plan that just sits on a shelf - exactly where city officials didn't want it going.

Ceres pinned much of its dreams of a revitalized downtown to redevelopment revenues. Before the state took its action, Ceres received $7 million in annual tax increment, of which $4 million was used to pay down on bond debt. The bonds will still be paid but Ceres loses the $3 million it could have used to prime downtown for improvements.

"We were trying to do good work and this was the one tool to assist us in private development," said Brian Briggs, the city of Ceres Redevelopment and Economic Development Manager.

"Quite frankly, we don't have any money and we have to wait for private money to come in," said Mayor Chris Vierra. "Without the use of redevelopment it really makes it a challenge and I really don't see private dollars coming in unless the economy improves."

Those sentiments were echoed by Briggs.

"The private sector works on its own timetable," said Briggs. "There's no way when I can anticipate when things will pick up."

The City Council approved the Downtown Specific Plan in early 2011 after commissioning the Berkeley firm of Design, Community & Environment (DC&E) to develop a $350,000 20-year vision and implementation strategy to make downtown what it presently is not. The plan - now part of zoning ordinance - projects downtown Ceres as a destination location with a 8- to 10-screen movie theater, professional offices and retail spaces on ground floors and residential units on second floors, eateries to offer a nightlife atmosphere, more parking, an expanded civic center and expanded streetscapes.

One ingredient of the plan is to infuse 495 more residential units and 1,678 corresponding downtown dwellers in the downtown area. But before they can "build it and they will come," the city must upgrade water and sewer infrastructure in downtown.

Nothing can be done without money.

"As far as the city being able to invest in those projects, we just don't have it now," said Briggs.

He notes that there are signs that development of the 580 corridor is beginning to pick up. Once residential bounces back and house prices edge upward, more development is expected to trickle down to the Valley and Ceres.

Meanwhile, Ceres continues to do what it can to lure new business, said the mayor.

"You have to do much more than wait for the phone to ring and hear people say 'I want to come to your city,'" said Vierra. "We need to be much more aggressive in our approach in luring business and be as business friendly as we can. It's difficult because we're competing with other jurisdiction and cities."

Until the economy and job market improves, Vierra believes companies will continue to be skittish about investing in projects both large and small. Funding is also hard to come by.

There is also another hindrance: the lack of available land in downtown Ceres.

Because downtown is covered with existing buildings, significant redevelopment via a wrecking ball would have to take place to accommodate such a downtown movie theater - if and when someone wanted to build it. The most fitting location for a cineplex would be in the area bounded by Fourth Street, El Camino Avenue, Park Street, Sixth Street and Lawrence Street. The location is deemed best because it is visible from the freeway.

The Ceres Redevelopment Agency acted in a visionary mode when Brad Kilger was city manager in purchasing six commercial lots as they became available. The CRA intended to hold onto them until someone expresses an interest in them. None of them are contiguous nor large enough to accommodate a big project, however. In the wind-down of the CRA, Vierra is fairly sure Ceres will get to keep those lots from the state's reach.

"We really don't know how the whole redevelopment thing shakes out," said the mayor. "It changes almost weekly."

Vierra believes that there will be an interest in someone developing the vacant lands between Ceres High School north of Whitmore Avenue and Lazy Wheels Mobile Home Park. The land is owned by Caltrans which he says is not in a hurry to sell. The state purchased the right of way for construction of the Whitmore interchange at $2 million but knows it's not worth that today.