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Great need, few bucks for downtown
Downtown Ceres does not offer much in the way of drawing traffic off of Highway 99, even though the access to the freeway is better than most in the Valley. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier file photo

With the loss of redevelopment money knocking the wind out of a plan to turn downtown Ceres into a destination location, the Ceres City Council talked last week about ways to improve the future for the area.

Members of the council aren't willing to give up hope, but have few options other than entice new businesses and private money.

The only funds available for downtown improvement come from a modest level of assessments levied on downtown businesses. The $16,000 annual budget for the downtown revitalization board pales in comparison to the millions the city hoped to invest in downtown for infrastructure and business development.

Despite the fact that downtown Ceres has high visibility to Highway 99 traffic, the downtown area suffers from an anemic business activity and empty store fronts.

"I can assure you as one councilman on this body, I'm not going to sit back," Vice Mayor Ken Lane told some of the business leaders who want some action. "I think it's time that something happens and think hopefully that our plan that is being put together is going to address some of these issues."

Mayor Chris Vierra said all councilmen want to continue with the downtown improvement district but said "I think we all agree it needs some reform and some updating."
Attempts to survey the business community in downtown have fallen flat but the mayor said "we still don't like the way it looks."

Vierra said he is "not a fan" of spending money on a marketing plan but preferred to see the money spent on maintenance of landscaping while adding a program to use some of the funds as loans to potential businesses.

Councilman Eric Ingwerson, a local real estate agent, likes the idea of façade improvement. He noted that many potential entrepreneurs are scared off by the cost of making electrical and plumbing improvements in the mostly older buildings in downtown.

Vierra wants Bryan Briggs, the city's economic development director, to review the original intent of the Downtown Revitalization Area Board (CDRAB) when it formed in 1988.

In 2011 the Ceres City Council approved a downtown strategic plan -- which carried a $350,000 price tag -- to help turn downtown Ceres into a destination spot. The Berkeley firm of Design, Community & Environment (DC&E) developed the 20-year vision as well as an implementation strategy to tap into the potential of downtown Ceres. Weighing in on the future of downtown were merchants and residents. The plan was to serve as a tool for redevelopment activities in the region bounded by El Camino on the west, Whitmore Avenue on the north, Ninth Street to the east and Park Street to the south. The "blueprint" sets development standards, land use regulations and identifies circulation improvements and infrastructure needs.

However, last year, Gov. Jerry Brown dismantled all redevelopment agencies in the state to raid coffers to plug a state budget deficit. Brown's plan depressed city officials in Ceres who hoped to prime the 121-acre area for new development, including 495 residential units and 1,678 corresponding downtown dwellers in the downtown area along with a cineplex. Briggs has believed that a cineplex of between 8 to 11 screens would be a chief draw for downtown. Because downtown is covered with existing buildings, significant redevelopment via a wrecking ball would have to take place to accommodate such a structure.