If Steve Hallam, the city's new economic development director, projects any attitude about his new role at City Hall, it's that of optimism.
Helping businesses to stay and/or expand in Ceres, or bringing in new business is no small task for anyone, let alone the former planning director of Turlock and former city manager of Oakdale.
"There's nothing easy about this job," said Hallam. "That's what makes it fun to get up in the morning and come here."
Admittedly some of the work which he started since coming onboard in April won't necessarily produce results immediately. Hallam has a 15-month contract with the Ceres City Council at which time they may or may not renew. He knows that he may be like the gentleman who plants a fruit tree knowing that he won't be around long enough to taste the produce.
"I hope in my year here I've been part of the catalyst of this gradual change that begins to evolve and that it continues," said Hallam. "Economic development is no one person. It really is a partnership issue."
The roles of economic development director in cities grew significantly tougher when Gov. Brown decided to kill off redevelopment agencies in California to siphon money into state coffers. Ceres lost millions that otherwise would have been furrowed into infrastructure.
"That was a big loss for Ceres, big loss," said Hallam. "We don't have the financing tool so we have to look at other options but I think other options will come up. Without RDA we're going to be looking for other ways to work with private property owners."
Hallam has been working on owners of downtown commercial properties in an attempt to get someone to sell off a building to spur a new project that would serve as a draw of locals as well as Highway 99 travelers. One of those is Jim Delhart, the former mayor and downtown "lynch pin" of properties. Hallam is trying to talk Delhart into selling off the old bank building at Fourth and Lawrence to be used as possibly a microbrewery or an eatery use.
"There's some great opportunities there," said Hallum of the bank building itself, citing its size and rooftop sign visible from Highway 99. "This downtown has so much potential," said Hallam, who replaced Bryan Briggs. "In this county, no other city has a downtown immediately adjacent and visible from the freeway.
"There's more than one property owner down there. I'm wanting to encourage someone to consider the city's vision, consider what could be and perhaps be one of the leaders in leaving a legacy of a new impression of downtown. That's really what I'm after."
Hallam has spent some time reaching out to Ceres' major employers and major sales tax producers, "because they certainly contribute significantly to the tax base which drives a lot of the services the city provides." He tells them he is their contact at City Hall and says he will try to help, whether they are struggling or if they are looking to expand.
"It's not only business expansion but retention - keeping the ones who are here already."
Hallam is hearing that most businesses are "just hanging on" but seeing slight improvement in the economy.
Things are starting to appear more optimistic, too, as far as the Ceres Southern Gateway, the vacant land around the Mitchell/Service/Highway 99 interchange. While the city and others wait to see the outcome of the court challenge to the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center with anchor tenant Walmart Supercenter, city-initiated improvements will be occurring within a year to widen Service Road to make the land just to the south shovel ready for new commercial ventures.
Meanwhile, Ralph Ogden & Associates, owner of land south of Service Road between 99 and Mitchell Road, appears more ready to begin developing the land for a commercial enterprise. In 2008 Ogden received city approval to build a commercial center consisting of a 162-room, three-story Hampton Inn & Suites and a tentative parcel map to split 16 acres into nine parcels for six buildings totaling 25,955 square feet for a proposed restaurant, retail space and gas mart. The project went into the skids upon the heels of the recession.
"The logjams of the economy are starting to loosen," said Hallam. "That Gateway center is starting to generate interest."
It's questionable, given the recent buildings of hotels in Turlock, if the land will ever yield a Hampton Inn. But Hallam said that the Alliance promoted the commercial site at the International Conference of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas in June.
While cities are reeling from the state dismantling of redevelopment agencies and funds, Hallam is energized about two new computer tools - RetailTrac and LoopNet - which the city now uses to market Ceres. Through their use he learned some vital details about Ceres as he promoted the building vacated by Staples at the Ceres Marketplace shopping center on Hatch Road. The computer programs allowed him to pinpoint which national retailers are expanding to send letters to see if they are interested in setting up in the former Staples building.
Hallam learned something startling about demographics to use in promoting Ceres, including downtown. The program allows him to draw a one-, three-, and five-mile radius circles around downtown and come up with population figures and household incomes. The new numbers are of interest retailers.
"A lot of these retailers want like 100,000 people within a five-mile radius, or they want 50,000 within the three-mile," said Hallam. The new demographics show downtown has 72,013 living in the three-mile radius and 161,765 within the five-mile.
"The other thing that I found is that a lot of them want at least a $50,000 annual household income. What was interesting was the old data we were using from the 2000 census was showing $47,731 - just under. In updating that ... our average household income in our market area is $57,916. That puts us over that $50,000 threshold and opened up a lot more of these retailers."
Hallam said the demographics are "a big thing that helps us get recognized on the retail sites."
The leasing agent for the former Staples building told Hallam that the city may be pleased at a retailer which may be announced by August.
While City Manager Toby Wells privately jokes for Hallam to snag a Cabela's store in Ceres, it's not crazy considering that a 30-mile radius around Ceres shows it meets the one million population for a market area required by the outfitter.
Other possibilities abound.
"Five years ago, everybody wanted an In-N-Out in their city," said Hallam. "Now, I just sent this flyer to Five Guys, Smashburger, and Chick-fil-A. Five Guys are cool. They're the new up and coming In-N-Out. Right now they are big in LA. I thought, he why can't we be the next place to get that?" Maybe we'll be the first place in the Central Valley. Who knows?"
He shows excitement about the new direction of the Alliance (another name for the Stanislaus Economic Development & Workforce Alliance) which is actively putting word out to the city about businesses needing sites.
Hallam says he is glad to have two big documents - the Economic Development Strategic Plan and the Downtown Specific Plan - which has captured the vision of the future and serves as a guide for the development of the future of Ceres.
"Is it a long-term vision? Hell yeah but I don't have to create the vision. It's a good plan."
In April the City Council decided to spend $1.5 million on downtown Ceres improvements that include water, sewer and storm drainage. That investment is coming from $15.3 million in bond proceeds from the state-exterminated Ceres Redevelopment Agency that will make Ceres both more shovel ready and enticing for new commercial development.
While retail needs will continue to change with a fickle public, Hallam said Ceres will focusing on jobs and manufacturing and production too.
"Our niche, for the next few years, is going to be small to mid-size industrial occupants because our Rockefeller and Miller (centers) are some of the best opportunities in the county," said Hallam. He referred available quality buildings as well as available shovel-ready building sites that appeal to the half to three-acre people.
Ceres falls short, however, in larger industrial sites of 40 acres and railroad access.
"The big, big people we just can't compete for," he said.
Those sites are in the Ceres sphere of influence and the general plan update will allow Ceres to begin laying the groundwork for larger industrial sites south of Service Road. But it will take a while, he said.