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Hughson looks ahead with festival, business incubator
The city of Hughson has taken a few hard hits in the past two years, but is not down for the count. Over the past six months the city has set the stage for a comeback.

The city has gained control over its budget; there have been recent efforts to reinstate the Hughson Chamber of Commerce, an organization that disbanded in 2008; and the city has partnered with Stanislaus Alliance to bring a business incubator to town.

The return of the Hughson Fruit and Nut Festival - which will now be called the Hughson Harvest Festival - set for Sept. 24-25, is also expected to bring the residents of Hughson back together.

"Since the recall election, the city government is working a lot more efficiently," said Hughson Councilman Jeramy Young, who won a seat in the August 2010 recall election. "We have a balanced budget and are being proactive in business development."

Prior to the August election, there had been a tumultuous atmosphere at Hughson City Hall. In May 2010, City Manager Joe Donabed's contract was not renewed on a split, 3-2 vote. Those council members who voted not to renew Donabed's contract - Doug Humphreys, Thom Crowder and Ben Manley - were targeted by a December 2009 Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury report as orchestrating the attempted firing of the city manager, city clerk and city engineer.

All three were also found by the Civil Grand Jury to be in violation of the Brown Act, Fair Political Practices and Regulations, and the Hughson Municipal Code.

Humphreys, Crowder, and Manley were recalled in an Aug. 24, 2010 special election. They were replaced by Young, George Carr and Jill Silva. Bryan Whitemyer was hired as the Hughson city manager on Sept. 27, 2010, and he started work in November 2010.

The road to recovery was a bumpy one. In February the City Council voted to eliminate five of its 23 full-time positions. While that was a painful move for the city - and especially the workers who lost their jobs - Whitemyer and the City Council found it was necessary to balance the budget and put Hughson back on a financially stable track.

Since then, the city has started to move forward.

"We have a great team that really has coalesced well and come together to pick up the slack," Whitemyer said.

An important part of the city's revival is attracting new businesses. The City Council recently approved the creation of Hughson's first Economic Development Committee. The committee will work with the city manager and Stanislaus Alliance in vetting new businesses for the incubator, which will be housed in the areas of City Hall that were vacated because of the cuts.

"We're trying to think outside of the box and reuse facilities that are underutilized right now," Whitemyer said.

Unlike other area incubators, however, Hughson's will be open to any business whether locally based or not.

"Our hope is to increase participation in the program and when businesses become successful, they'll stay in Hughson," Young said.

Businesses interested in the Hughson incubator can contact Whitemyer at 883-4054 for more information.

Several residents and community leaders have also been working towards bringing back the Hughson Chamber of Commerce. The organization disbanded after the 2008 Fruit and Nut Festival, of which it was the sponsor.

"I think it's important for the city to have a chamber," said interim chamber president Aaron Martella. "It will be a centralizing force within the community to keep local businesses appraised of events and direct people to businesses."

The chamber is in the process of filing the necessary paperwork for its nonprofit status.

"We have a good group, ready to commit and work together to make our town a better place," Martella said.

The return of a festival to Hughson is another recent happening that looks to unite the town. Marie Assali is just one community leader who has been in on the planning of what will now be called the Hughson Harvest Festival.

"The purpose of having the Hughson Harvest Festival is to promote the community. We have a lot of new businesses downtown and it gives them an opportunity to promote their business," said Assali. "It's also a time to get together, a place for families to go downtown and to see people."

The newly named Harvest Festival will be held in September instead of May, when the Fruit and Nut Festival was traditionally held. This change of date was planned to include Hughson High School's homecoming. The new event will feature an alumni football game, a street dance, farmers' market, vendor booths, live entertainment and, of course, lots of locally grown fruits and nuts.

"Hughson is a wonderful community and (the festival) helps us to showcase that great community," Whitemyer said.