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Downtown rehab interest is weak
City: Only three in downtown interested
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City officials say downtowns greatest strength is Highway 99 visibility but detracting from that is a less than desirable condition. Outdated looks, building neglect and conflicting color schemes exist in downtown. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Since announcing the downtown façade improvement program - where the city offers grants to upgrade business storefronts - there has been some interest expressed.

"We've had a couple of people kicking tires - nobody real serious yet," said City Manager Toby Wells.

Three persons have expressed an interest in the developing city program. They include Frank Ball, owner of Steps Dance Art Studio; Frank Cardenas of Sole Saver Shoe Repair; and Nirmal Ahluwalia of Ceres Dry Cleaners. Ball recently painted a building of his that houses a floral shop on Lawrence Street with results that won good reviews.

The Ceres City Council approved the program and its perimeters last month.

Before financial assistance will be offered, city staff is inviting local architectural firms to submit proposals to be on a list of approved designers who would be helping businesses draw up design plans.

The city hopes that by offering matching dollars, it can motivate business owners and landlords to give downtown buildings a facelift, despite skeptics who say downtown is rife with owners who aren't interested in spending any money.

The program has two components. Funded by $25,000 out the assessments paid by downtown businesses, the city will give dollar-for-dollar grants of up to $1,500 for professional architectural and design assistance for owners desiring a new exterior. Steve Hallam, the city's Redevelopment & Economic Development Manager, believes $3,000 should cover design work. However, actual blueprints for construction would be a separate cost which owners will need to cover. Building permit fees are also another cost.

The second component allocates $250,000 for matching grants. The city is offering $1,000 up to $10,000 for the actual construction work.

Participating businesses must undergo the city's design assistance component, which Hallam says will ensure that façade improvements will be "consistent with the city's aesthetic objectives" set out in the 2011 Downtown Specific Plan. Owners will be able to pick from a pre-approved list of designers who are familiar with the program.

A big downside to the program, said Hallam, is the requirement that construction must be hired at prevailing wage - which can increase the cost of work by 50 percent - because of state laws requiring all projects using public funds to be labor union rates.

Owners must also sign an agreement that they will keep the improvements looking good for five years.

"It sets the stage for improving the appearance to improve vitality of downtown," said Hallam. He also added that "this is not the panacea to downtown; it's not going to be the one thing that will change it.

"Perhaps it will just be one of the tools that turn the tide."

Downtown buildings used as churches will not be eligible for the program.

"We want to target businesses that are actively promoting a vibrant downtown Monday through Friday, 8 to 5, and on the weekends," said Hallam.

He said if someone needs structural modifications, the costs would probably exceed the program's limits. If that happens, he said the city can consider increasing assistance on a case by case basis.

Hallam estimated that about 15 businesses could take advantage of the program affecting 30 buildings. Wells said the program can be expanded depending on interest.

Tom Westbrook, director of Community Development, said it's possible that a business owner could take advantage of the design assistance program while contracting out the work on their own to get the work done cheaper.

Wells said the program will only work if "property owners willing to invest in their property so it doesn't happen overnight and it does make patience and effort but we, as a city, are committed to trying to take the hurdles out of the way so that there is a reason to go downtown."

Hallam said downtown is the "heart of Ceres and deserves preservation." He said the fact that 100,000 vehicles travel Highway 99 daily and can see downtown gives its location "an edge over almost any downtown in this Valley."

Hallam said other cities, notably Livermore and Turlock, were able to renovate their downtowns because of the availability of redevelopment funds. Ceres lost the use of redevelopment funds when Gov. Jerry Brown dissolved redevelopment agencies to raid those local funds to balance the state's budget.

On Monday the City Council voted 4-0 to assess downtown businesses for the 2015-16 fiscal year. The assessment, paid by downtown businesses, will generate about $16,000 and help pay for the façade improvement program, pay for street light electrical costs, maintain street trees, rotate seasonal banners, fund a building permit fee assistance program and study of proposed wayside finding signage.