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City aims to spark downtown facelift
City Council approves faade improvement help program
City officials are hoping the offer of a 50/50 grant for facade improvements will spur owners of buildings or businesses, like those seen here on Lawrence and Fourth streets, to upgrade their exterior appeal. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

City officials hope a new downtown business façade improvement assistance program will prompt business owners and landlords to give their buildings a facelift, despite skeptics who say downtown is rife with owners who aren't motivated to spend any money.

The Ceres City Council on Monday approved a plan that allocates matching funds for owners who are willing to make private investments to update downtown storefronts. The city's oldest commercial district, with its obvious signs of neglect and lack a cohesive design scheme, does not welcome shoppers, some spoke out on Monday. The city hopes that the program, which has plenty of strings attached, will kick-start some action.

The program has two components. The first, funded by $25,000 out the assessments paid by downtown businesses, has the city giving dollar-for-dollar grants of up to $1,500 for professional architectural and design assistance for owners desiring a new exterior. Steve Hallam, the city's Redevelopment & Economic Development Manager, said he thinks $3,000 may cover design work. However, the actual blueprints would be a separate cost which owners would have to cover, along with building permit fees.

The second component sets aside $250,000 for matching grants of $1,000 up to $10,000 for the actual construction work.

Any participating business or landlord must undergo the city's design assistance component, which Hallam says will ensure that façade improvements will be "consistent with the city's aesthetic objectives" set out in the 2011 Downtown Specific Plan. Owners will be able to pick from a pre-approved list of designers who are familiar with the program.

Hallam admits the big downside to the program is the requirement that all construction work must be hired at prevailing wage - which can increase the cost of work by 50 percent - because of state laws requiring all projects using public funds to be labor union rates.

Owners must also sign an agreement that they will keep the façade improvements looking good for five years.

"It sets the stage for improving the appearance to improve vitality of downtown," said Hallam. He also added that "this is not the panacea to downtown; it's not going to be the one thing that will change it.

"Perhaps it will just be one of the tools that turns the tide."

He said downtown is the "heart of Ceres and deserves preservation." He said the fact that 100,000 vehicles travel Highway 99 daily and can see downtown gives its location "an edge over almost any downtown in this Valley."

Hallam said other cities, notably Livermore and Turlock, have been able to renovate their downtowns due to the availability of redevelopment funds. Ceres does not have the same opportunities since Gov. Jerry Brown dismantled all redevelopment agencies to pirate those local funds to balance the state's budget.

"That dealt a big blow to our ability to help fund revitalization," said Hallam.

Private investment is not only required, he said, but it makes for a more successful program.

Downtown buildings used as churches will not be eligible for the program.

"We want to target businesses that are actively promoting a vibrant downtown Monday through Friday, 8 to 5, and on the weekends," said Hallam.

He shared success stories of 10 façade improvements in Wisconsin, showing before and after photos. One, Eddie's Ale House & Eatery in Sun Prairie, Wisc., underwent $30,000 in exterior improvements and saw a 10 percent increase in first-time customers and a 10 percent increase in sales.

Councilmember Linda Ryno wondered if the amount of the grants "are really going to do anything" in more expensive California.

"That will have to be tested," answered Hallam.

He said if someone needs structural modifications, the costs would probably exceed the program's limits. If that happens, he said the city can consider increasing assistance on a case by case basis.

Hallam estimated that about 15 businesses could take advantage of the program affecting 30 buildings. However, he said about three have expressed an interest, one of them being Frank Ball, owner of Steps Dance Art Studio. Ball recently painted a building of his that houses a floral shop on Lawrence Street with results that won good reviews.

Mayor Chris Vierra voiced his concerns about the program.
"We're giving limited amount of money, it's tied to prevailing wage so if I'm a business owner downtown and looking at this thing like wow, I can go in and it's probably going to cost me twice as much as it would if I did it on myself but the city's going to fund some of it ... I don't know if that's the motivation to get me off the dime," said Vierra.

He suggested re-evaluating the program in six months.

City Manager Toby Wells said the program can be expanded depending on interest.

Tom Westbrook, director of Community Development, said it's possible that a business owner could take advantage of the design assistance program while contracting out the work on their own to get the work done cheaper.

Citizen Dave Pratt suggested that downtown Ceres has bigger problems than facades, saying there's "nothing downtown to draw them off the highway."

Wells said the program will only work if "property owners willing to invest in their property so it doesn't happen overnight and it does make patience and effort but we, as a city, are committed to trying to take the hurdles out of the way so that there is a reason to go downtown."

Ceres Chamber of Commerce Renee Ledbetter said she is excited about the program.

"I think this is a very good start and I love to hear that you're talking ‘let's give more money," said Ledbetter. "But this is a good place to start."

Leonard Shepherd seemed less positive.

"It's like putting lipstick on a pig - you've still got a pig," said Shepherd. He said businesses like Suszanne's Ceramics suffer from landlords unwilling to take care of interior improvements let alone the outside.

"The property owner won't do anything," said Shepherd. "I've seen some really terrible violations and you can't get it down by the tenant being code enforced to death."

"Nobody seems to be willing to take on that big monstrosity on the corner that's used now, instead of a bank or anything else, as a storage unit for mattresses and stuff," said Shepherd. He suggested publicly shaming owners like Jim Delhart who owns many downtown buildings.

"Has anyone decided to go in and check out the furniture store and see if it's within code?" asked Shepherd.

Sheila Brandt thanked the council for caring about downtown.

"This is where your heart should be," said Brandt. "...yeah, it's shabby down there ... I think downtown could ... just clean up, if nothing else just painting some of the buildings and making everybody the same color instead of some hot pink and some brown and some white."

Upon hearing the negative tone, Councilman Mike Kline said "you've always got to start positive and you've got to start somewhere."