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Quantum leap needed for economic development
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If Ceres is to grow its business and industry base, the city must make an aggressive attempt to both change its image and improve its quality of life so that it becomes attractive to the 35 and younger set.

A "quantum leap" in mindset, how the city does business and future actions are needed to economically develop Ceres, Acting City Manager Art deWerk told the Ceres City Council on Monday. The comments came during a study session weeks after an economic development plan was delivered and fell short of council expectations.

DeWerk stressed to the council that city staff is on top of economic development.

The economic development plan drafted by consultant Urban Futures contains plenty of data, said deWerk, but did not lay out a roadmap to drawing more restaurants, businesses and industries. But he said the city is aggressively taking steps to flesh out a plan of action.

DeWerk said Ceres must first become a community that attracts professionals who are 35 and younger - a group that has been identified as wielding the greatest economic influence in the country. He shared seven key indicators of a desirable community and asked the council to ponder if Ceres met the test.

"Do you think we're meeting any of these seven indicators either partially or totally?" deWerk asked the council in rhetorical fashion.

Making Ceres more desirable, the team stressed, hinges on the need to improve the image of Ceres and dispel the notion that Ceres is a place stuck between Modesto and Turlock. Brandman University's Modesto campus director Nikki Santo, who is an advisor to the city's economic development team, said that Ceres can use its location "to your competitive advantage because you can be the actual locality or area that is in between Modesto and Turlock and actually make that in between place the ‘sweet spot,' not the ‘oh by the way on your way to Turlock from Modesto and vice versa there's Ceres.' "

To get there, she said Ceres needs to rebrand its image.

"Rebranding a city comes down to the fundamentals of what you do and who you are. It's not about creating a new logo or website," she said. "It's really about addressing the issues that are fundamental about how people perceive you. It's all about communication."

Santo suggested that Ceres blow its horn about Ceres being a "much safer community than Modesto or Turlock.
"Communicate that Ceres is a safe community. It's safe because you make it safe. You have a good police and fire response time. Turn the story around to represent what it really is."

There is a need, said deWerk, for Ceres to offset its lack of a sense of culture and suggested starting with the city-owned Clinton Whitmore Mansion which he said is a "perfect venue" to create cultural events.

As a jurist for the Helen Putnam Award program, sponsored by the League of California Cities, Bryan Briggs, the city's Economic Development Manager, discussed how other cities have enhanced their arts or cultural offerings.

Elk Grove developed a multicultural day and West Hollywood converted a parking garage for artistic use. He highlighted how Ceres might draw in busloads of Japanese tourists who routinely interrupt their travel between San Francisco and Yosemite to visit the Hilmar Cheese Factory. Briggs said Ceres might market itself as a stopover point to get those tourists for produce or another attraction.

DeWerk and Briggs agreed that Ceres must engage its business community leaders to get into the business mindset to turn its economy around. DeWerk outlined his thoughts about how Ceres can build its business and jobs base by getting business leaders to supply input through a mayor's advisory committee.

Briggs also suggested inviting shopping center experts to assess Ceres' shopping centers and possibly make unsolicited offers to buy them. All of Ceres' shopping corridors are "underperforming," he said with the exception of the Ceres Walmart. The national average is that one square foot of retail commercial makes $325 in taxable sales and all are under $125 except for Walmart.

A great deal of time was spent on ways Ceres can improve its physical image which has a direct bearing on who is willing to invest in Ceres. DeWerk said that Ceres suffers from blight caused by unkempt properties, beggars greeting those coming off of the freeways, the eyesore of the Lazy Wheels Mobilehome Park, the barren Whitmore Avenue/Highway 99 interchange and homes along Herndon Avenue that look like "Third World" housing. He suggested wielding political power to storm Sacramento lawmakers to pressure for funding of the interchange to "embarrass the enemies that are dragging us down."

DeWerk said the city should look at re-evaluating truck routes in Ceres since trucks have an adverse public image for Ceres. He also suggested that code enforcement and zoning should be revisited for Ceres' key corridors.

Other ideas tossed out included:

• Use mobile apps to promote where to shop, eat and attend cultural activities in Ceres.

• All city staff reports will include an analysis of how council choices could affect the Ceres businesses and economic development.

• Creating a business incubator program to develop more small businesses that employ residents.

• Re-examine whether the city's participation with the Stanislaus Alliance.

• Exercising better spin over crime stories by stressing the relative safety of Ceres as a community.

Briggs said the council must adapt priorities that focus on image change.

"Opportunities present themselves when they're ready and the city needs to be ready," said Briggs.

The council seemed to enjoy the presentation. Councilman Eric Ingwerson noted: "We have to think outside the box. We have to create the sweet spot between Modesto and Turlock and stop saying we can't and start saying we can."