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Industrial growth may be key for Ceres future
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Ceres may expect to attract 300,000 to 600,000 square feet of the 7.1 million square feet of new industrial buildings projected to be developed in Stanislaus County over the next seven years.

The county's third largest city could also snag 14,000 to 26,000 square feet of new office space during the same time.

Those were two of the highlights of the Ceres Economic Development Strategic Plan that was delivered to the Ceres City Council on Monday by consultants Urban Futures of Orange, Calif.

"It chronicles what you have all known... but it provides several upbeat trends for Stanislaus County," said Steven Dukett, a managing principal of Urban Futures.

The plan outlines that Ceres' best opportunities to grow retail and industry is in the Mitchell Road area near Highway 99 and southwest of Ceres.

Urban Futures believes that future retail growth will be captured by existing retailers but Dukett said the building of the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center and its anchor tenant of the Walmart Supercenter will attract a significant spinoff of restaurant and retail growth. The center is being held up in court by an anti-Walmart group but will likely survive the challenge and be constructed.

To accomplish its goals of developing more business in Ceres, Dukett said the city must continue with the building of infrastructure as well as creating a fund to finance economic development activities. The Urban Futures report suggested $350,000 per year over the next seven years to pay for city staff to aggressively market Ceres. Staff should attend trade shows, market and advertise Ceres as a place to locate businesses and design guidelines brochures and promote Ceres on the internet.

"Economic development is not free," Dukett reminded the council.

Modesto and Turlock have been active in economic development for some time, he noted and that a laissez-faire attitude as in years past would result in Ceres getting statistically less than what other cities get.

Dukett also suggested that since the state of California abolished redevelopment agencies and seized its funding, that the city devote an increase in tax revenue toward economic development activities in Ceres.

Dukett said that because "the private sector turns quickly" that the city needs to be accessible for quick action. His firm suggests that Ceres continue and strengthen its already perceived business-friendly environment and form a Blue Ribbon Team that would meet with business leaders who are interested in setting up business in Ceres.

Urban Futures suggests that Ceres should not invest time and money in revitalizing downtown because "your immediate opportunities are not in downtown business." He noted that downtown is comprised of multiple owners and that the highway interchange there is not efficient.

"There is no reason to throw away the downtown," said Dukett. "It's always important to be ready to respond to opportunities when they come but you've already invested a significant amount of money in a Downtown Specific Plan. What we're suggesting here is when the time is right ... that might be the opportunity that comes forward."

Dukett said economic development will hinge too on county voters supporting a sales tax increase to keep up with transportation infrastructure. He noted that the county is one of only two counties without a transportation sales tax.

"That's why you're not getting these huge capital projects in your county," said Dukett. "It's a crying shame."

He also faulted Caltrans for neglecting to treat the Whitmore interchange with landscaping.

"It's shameful, frankly, what Caltrans is doing to your city. And that doesn't apply to every city down that right-of-way. It does here. To me that's troubling."

The council appeared lukewarm to the plan's content and sent it back for more work.

Mayor Chris Vierra said the document is a "good start but in my opinion misses the mark." He said the report spent time on "generic things" the city has already known and that he wants to see "more meat," specifically items that the city could take to help generate new business. As an example, Vierra wants a report to analyze what the nation's top restaurants and other businesses look for in terms of demographics or sites and how Ceres measures up.

The mayor also wants a better explanation of a list of strengths and weaknesses judged of Ceres by members of the community during workshops.

Stakeholders suggested that Ceres' strengths include responsiveness to the business community, quality police and fire services, access to Highway 99, growth potential of the 960-acre West Ceres Annexation, a business-friendly government, the presence of an Enterprise Zone and the Ceres Unified School District's Career Technical Education Program.

The same group identified weaknesses that include high fees, the perception that Ceres is "unfriendly," "unsafe" and "low-end," community apathy, lack of community identity, the lack of shovel ready sites, lack of entertainment and shopping opportunities, unpreparedness for a large scale development and the need for beautification.

Vierra wanted to know what the community was comparing Ceres' fees to in stating that fees are too high. He also wanted an explanation as to why a half-cent sales tax was deemed a drawback.

Vice Mayor Ken Lane suggested that there was "fluff" in the report and suggested that the plan sounded more like "a big-city deal to me" and suggested that the city could not afford economic development to the degree outlined by Urban Futures.

"I don't know that this is what I was expecting," Lane said. "A little fluff, a little weak in some area, good information in other areas but when you say implement this program, it's going to cost us money to be able to be successful and I don't know ... if we can afford that."

Councilman Bret Durossette said he agrees with Urban Futures that downtown is "not happening right now nor will happen for a long time."

"There's a lot in here," Durossette said of the plan. "I just kind of want an idea of where the next Chili's is going to go and how we can get that Chili's there ... how to get that, how to grab it."

The plan, once adopted, should not sit on a shelf, said Durossette.

City Manager Art deWerk said the plan will not sit on the shelf and noted that the city staff will stake their careers on a successful execution of the plan.

"Your staff is 100 percent responsible for if this gets dusty or not," said deWerk. "It's not going to get dusty. This has to be put to use but there are a number of us on city staff that have staked our Ceres careers on the successful implementation of this."

He also stated that even though the city may not have money for a full-time economic development program "we're going to proceed."

Urban Futures forecasts that over the next five years the county's average annual employment rate will grow by 1.3 percent to 1.6 percent and that unemployment will decrease from 15.5 percent to 14.4 percent by the end of this year and as low as 10.2 percent by 2017.