A storm-related power outage at the Ceres Community Center threatened Wednesday evening's community meeting on the future of downtown Ceres. The blackout was not a good omen for a group of civic leaders who gathered to plan a strategy to improve the oldest shopping district of Ceres. The power came on just in time, however, for the 6 p.m. meeting, and a glow of optimism and enthusiasm burned as four main attainable goals were outlined to jumpstart a renewed effort to revitalize downtown.
City and Chamber of Commerce leaders joined with downtown merchants in hammering out ideas for small steps to produce noticeable changes. They will recommend to the Ceres Downtown Revitalization Area Board (CDRAB) that the following programs be enacted:
• A $50,000 to $60,000 façade improvement program to loan monies to property owners to upgrade the exterior of downtown businesses with architectural changes, paint or new windows;
• Adding a hot water station to Whitmore Park that will allow for the return of a Farmer's Market since it would satisfy county health officials' concerns;
• Looking for ways the city can reduce the costs of city plan checks or building inspections for those wanting to build or relocate in downtown;
• Adding "way finding" signs that would help guide motorists to key features of the downtown district.
The recommendations will likely be taken up in January by the Ceres Planning Commission, which is acting as the CDRAB board.
A limited amount of funds - approximately $80,000 - is available to be spent from assessments paid by downtown merchants. City Community Development Director Tom Westbrook said the city would have to determine how far the money could go.
Westbrook shared his excitement over a proposed new office complex in downtown which he said could generate renewed enthusiasm in developing downtown. An applicant is proposing to build a two-story, 8,000-square-foot office building at the corner of Sixth and Park streets. Westbrook commented that the design of the building is "pretty swift."
"I think it's going to be a great addition to downtown," said Westbrook. "I think that just seeing that new construction downtown hopefully generates some interest in folks looking to ... say hey there's some new construction, I'm going to paint my building, I'm going to clean up a little bit, or now I'm interested in this façade program."
Acting City Manager Art deWerk apologized for the past failures of the city in revitalized downtown efforts but noted a new era of cooperation between downtown and City Hall.
"I would have to say that we probably rate in the negative score in terms of how downtown business people view their relations with the city," said deWerk. "That's something I'd very much like to see changed. The Chamber has really paved a way for improving those relations. Communication has been poor and we're setting up to change those things."
DeWerk announced that Bryan Briggs, the city's Economic Development Manager, had left for a different city. He said he would become "the face of economic development."
"I hope you give us a chance to redeem ourselves," said deWerk who said some failings were excusable due to the loss of redevelopment funding taken last year by the state.
DeWerk interjected a comment about an aspect of the Downtown Specific Plan which the city commissioned in January 2011. The plan pins revitalization efforts on a multi-screen movie theater within view of Highway 99 to draw foot traffic to downtown.
"In my view it has no place downtown," said deWerk. "This is not the right time nor should it be the top priority...if the people who are working and doing business downtown think we're so stupid that we're going to push a cineplex, they aren't going to give us any credibility. Now maybe it would be nice to have one, but we sure need a coffee shop, and a microbrewery - you know places for people to assemble and do things and have a good time."
Westbrook noted that the Specific Plan also stated any entertainment venue could substitute the cineplex.
"With the loss of the redevelopment funds it was difficult for the city to obtain the parcels necessary to make something like that happen," said Westbrook.
City officials admitted that the Downtown Specific Plan has sat dormant with little action. Deputy City Manager/City Engineer Toby Wells explained that the city had intended to spend $7 million in downtown infrastructure during the first five years of the plan but that hinged on $4.5 million in redevelopment funds that have disappeared. The plan outlines how downtown needs improvements to the water, sewer and storm drainage systems, especially if the plan's call for 485 dwelling units is realized. Those improvements will take place but at a slower pace, said Wells. For now the city is improving connections between downtown and the sewer plant on Service and Morgan roads.
While the group did come up with four priorities for downtown, there are a number of other ideas that could be implemented later. They include staging signature events to bring people to downtown, starting a community garden, providing low-interest loans for downtown business start-ups, increase awareness of services offered by the Alliance, introduce public arts to vacant stores, and add benches, restrooms or trash receptacles. Downtown branding and a business incubator program rounded out the idea list.
Renee Ledbetter, next year's president of the Ceres Chamber, inquired about the $2,000 of merchant assessments that is spent on the summer Concerts in the Park series. The city decided to use the funds for concerts under the concept of bringing more people to downtown despite most downtown businesses being closed in the evening. Ledbetter suggested instead having businesses sponsor the concerts and giving them a chance to promote their businesses to the crowd, which has numbered about 150 per concert.
"Aside from them coming to the concerts, we need them shopping downtown," commented Ledbetter.
DeWerk pledged to have the City Council reconsider using merchant dollars to support what had always been a city-sponsored venue.
Chamber president Dustin Pack voiced some concern that signage may help people get to the civic center and library but not help merchants. Ledbetter, too, stated that merchants deserved more than generic signs for a shopping district since they are paying into the district. She suggested listing all the various businesses on direction signs.
DeWerk said the old sign atop the former bank building owned by Jim Delhart could be used for a scrolling electronic sign that calls attention to downtown businesses visible from the freeway.
The idea for adding hot water facilities to the existing restroom building at Whitmore Park came about because farmer's market and concert food concessionaires ran into problems with the health department about the lack of hot water for food preparation. The only reason that Street Faire food vendors can offer food is because temporary facilities are brought in for the weekend.
Delhart suggested that the annual Street Faire - always held the first weekend in May -- is detrimental to downtown merchants because vendors lining both sides of Fourth Street wall them off from customers. He said he'd rather see booths placed in the community center parking lot.
Delhart, who has been in business in downtown for 43 years, said he's seen a lot of downtown improvement "and yet there's a lot more to go and it seems like the attitude of the city has changed quite a bit towards the business owners. It seemed like for a while they were fighting us so we backed off two or three times to remodel a couple of buildings (because of) the cost and how we had to do it." He said when he considered putting an awning of his storefronts it would have cost $185,000 "to do it the way the city wanted to do it."
At 78, Delhart offered to sell the city all of his downtown properties for $4 million, saying "you can develop it anyway you want out of it." That drew chuckles and a response from Westbrook that the city does not have the cash to snatch it up.