Over 25 years of city effort to spruce up downtown Ceres have failed to make an appreciable difference. On top of that, downtown merchants feel that assessments paid quarterly to a special district to improve downtown has been a waste of money.
Those were among the disappointing assessments delivered last week to city officials by the Ceres Chamber of Commerce at a special meeting of the Ceres Planning Commission.
The Chamber countered its honest reflection that downtown has remained virtually the same in the past 25 years by offering to ramp up its efforts to foster private-public partnerships to get downtown looking nicer and thriving.
"The Chamber is ready to take charge for economic development for this community," said Renee Ledbetter, vice president of the Ceres Chamber of Commerce. "That's our job." She was among about 30 stakeholders who showed up at the Oct. 21 roundtable discussion.
The Ceres Planning Commission serves as the governing board of the Ceres Downtown Revitalization Area Board (CDRAB). It inherited the job years ago after downtown merchants lacked interest in guiding the district.
Merchants, said Ledbetter, have a lot of ideas for downtown, which have not been expressed to the commission. They include providing more parking - including for handicapped drivers - for downtown shoppers, benches, "way finding" signage, public art, improved building facades, more trees and landscaping and an arch like Modesto's or Lodi's that welcomes visitors.
While merchants want more events in downtown Ceres to draw more foot traffic, they feel that the Ceres Street Faire is a detriment to sales during that first weekend in May.
"A lot of their concerns are that we need more foot traffic in downtown," said Ledbetter, "that if our focus is going to be on economic development, we need to drive businesses that are taxpaying businesses that are going to generate foot traffic that are going to be open morning, noon and night and weekends as well."
Communication between merchants and the city and CDRAB board is poor, she suggested.
"They just feel like they're not being heard," Ledbetter said on behalf of downtown merchants. She added that merchants "pay their quarterly dues and they want to know where their money is going. They want a say in where their money goes."
The lack of communication was decried by the commission.
"I'm sorry they don't feel they can attend the board meetings and reach out to us," said Commissioner Laurie Smith, who said no merchants have provided input each year when the CDRAB budget is being formed.
After the owner of a Fourth Street piñata shop suggested that he has never been paid a visit by city officials, Brian Briggs, the city's Economic Development manager, said he personally went in the shop at least 12 times.
Assessments paid by merchants pay for landscaping maintenance, electricity to power street lights, put up and take down banners and underwrite the summer Concerts in the Park series. Those costs come to about $21,000 per year. However, the fund has approximately $70,000 which is waiting to be spent.
Shane Parson of the Ceres Chamber said while he wasn't knocking the Concerts in the Park but he noted there are no businesses open in the area to benefit from evening crowds.
"I'm not sure what that does for the business improvement district," said Parson. "Not that I wouldn't spend the money on it but - and I'm just asking -- why should we when we're not there."
Ceres resident Lea Ann Hoogestraat, who works for the Alliance, publicly questioned why the city was charging district merchants $12,000 per year for electricity of street lights. Smith directed staff to revisit that policy.
Commissioners and city staff listened to the Chamber's feedback but quickly expressed frustration that Ceres and all cities have been stripped of redevelopment funding by Gov. Jerry Brown which would have funded infrastructure to get downtown rolling.
Deputy City Manager/ Public Works Director Toby Wells said the city has a new downtown plan in place that will not become a reality until private investment comes along.
"The baseline document is created," said Wells. "I mean the vision has already been painted. The challenge is that state pulled the rug out from underneath us. When this document was put into place in 2010 and 2011, we had a redevelopment agency."
The City Council approved a Downtown Specific Plan in 2011 after paying the firm of Design, Community & Environment (DC&E) $350,000 to develop 20-year vision and implementation strategy to improve downtown. The plan -- now part of zoning ordinance - aims to make downtown Ceres a destination location with a 8- to 10-screen movie theater, professional offices and retail spaces on ground floors and residential units on second floors, eateries to offer a nightlife atmosphere, more parking, an expanded civic center and expanded streetscapes. An element of the plan is to infuse 495 more residential units and 1,678 corresponding downtown dwellers in the downtown area. But before those units could be built, the city must upgrade water and sewer infrastructure in downtown. That is money the city does not have.
Downtown's worn appearance was discussed. Ledbetter mentioned that downtown Ceres buildings lack the "flow" of consistent design elements seen in cuter towns like Oakdale.
"Downtown needs to be more attractive," offered Ledbetter.
A number of persons commented that while downtown Ceres is highly visible from Highway 99 there is nothing to draw them off the freeway.
"We aren't grabbing anybody at all and there's probably tens of thousands a day and they don't take that (Fourth Street) exit," said Planning Commissioner Dave Chapman, who suggested that the first glimpse northbound 99 travelers get of downtown "looks really, really rough."
Parson said he likes the idea of improving facades to look better to freeway travelers.
"What's the easiest thing to do?" rhetorically asked Hoogestraat. "Clean-up .... and then move into some beautification. It doesn't have to be a budget breaker to do that. Make it appealing so people will want to come in and look at us. It's fine to have a concert in the park but if the downtown looks like crap, why would they want to come back?"
Briggs gave the panel a number of ideas that may be possible for downtown including a façade improvement program, holding annual signature events, planting a community garden, offering a Downtown Business of the Year Award, forming a micro-enterprise program or business incubator program to assist start-up businesses and offering place and brand marketing, and public amenities improvements.
With a vacancy rate of 12.5 percent, an idea came forth to see if building owners would allow empty storefronts to be used as "pop-up" art galleries to bring in foot traffic.
Ledbetter also interjected her thoughts that downtown cannot thrive with so many empty storefronts or businesses that are only open one day a week.
Ledbetter expressed her amazement that of the 121 properties inside the downtown district, only 45 are commercial paying an assessment. The rest are exempt as residences, churches or government owned properties.
"When we have only 37 percent of downtown paying into this, that's a huge problem," said Ledbetter.
The district is generally bounded by Magnolia Street to the north, El Camino Avenue on the west, Sixth Street on the east, south to Park Street and El Camino. In 2009, the city attempted to expand the boundaries of the district to extend to Whitmore Avenue but none of the affected businesses were interested.
Smith suggested that the board needs to prioritize and tackle projects one by one and come up with small successes. She plugged signs that would direct traffic to downtown uses, such as shopping, community center and city hall.
Citizen Dave Pratt said that as long as strip commercial centers are developed, there is no sense in doing business in the downtown.
"You've got to have something unique to draw them down there," said Pratt.
Smith replied that she frequents downtown businesses, including hair salons, Alfonso's, chiropractic care, dry cleaning and banking.
"I come downtown because I love Ceres," she said.
Hoogestraat said it's important that the group develop an achievable plan.
"We need to come up with a plan that can guarantee some success, an early success, so we can build the momentum to keep it going. It's not going to be easy."