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Council votes 3-1 to keep retail recruitment firm
closed Kmart store
The Retail Coach consulting firm will continue to work with the city of Ceres to attract new retailers to Ceres to fill empty stores like the former Kmart site which has been vacant since late 2018. The council voted 3-1 on Monday to extend the contract with TRC for another year. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/ Courier file photo

The Ceres City Council voted 3-1 on Monday to keep its existing contract with The Retail Coach, a firm that was hired in 2020 to help the city attract new retail businesses.

The Retail Coach (TRC) has created a “Developer Opportunity Package” for each targeted retailer of specific restaurant/retailers that has been the focus of marketing efforts. The firm has been actively recruiting retailers, as well as commercial developers, on Ceres’ behalf.  Additionally, TRC is assisting marketing efforts to retailers, developers, and brokers at retail industry conference and trade shows as well as provide ongoing coaching and support.

Vice Mayor Couper Condit pulled the item from the consent agenda saying he could not support the $25,000 contract “when we have a part-time economic development director, Steve Hallam, who makes around $50,000.” He also mentioned the city’s partnership with Opportunity Stanislaus, a local non-profit organization and the Ceres Chamber of Commerce. He suggested using the money for a small business loan or grant.

After Ceres resident John Warren said the city should use the $25,000 toward the special election coming up in August, City Manager Tom Westbrook said the contract is paid out of economic development bond proceeds which cannot be used for the costs of the special election to fill a vacant council seat.

Renee Ledbetter of the Ceres Chamber wanted to know what the city is paying Hallam, who operates out of his home in Auburn, and suggested that the city needs someone in economic development who is “here who is focused on this 24/7.” 

“We really need to have a dedicated person here, boots on the ground, working with Opportunity Stanislaus and utilizing the resources that are available like Retail Lease Trac, and some of the programs that are offered to us to go out and really promote Ceres,” said Ledbetter.

Austin Farmer, a representative with TRC, said his firm reduced its fee from $40,000 to $25,000 in response to cities’ pandemic struggles. He said he expects the economy to expand as COVID-19 restrictions let up.

Hallam reminded the council that in 2012 the City Council approved an Economic Development Strategic Plan to define appropriate, realistic and implementable strategies to help the Ceres achieve meaningful economic development goals and objectives.

“Why retail and restaurant and service uses are so important to our city is it’s our number one income source through sales taxes,” explained Hallam. “While it’s true a robust economic development includes industrial manufacturing development, the bottom line dollar to the city’s general fund budget is sales tax revenues.”

He noted that Modesto and Turlock both use marketing firms to help attract retailers. Hallam said cold-calling retailers, as he learned during a six-year effort, is not effective. Based on a retail gap survey the firm identified over 30 firms not in the market area which Ceres stands a chance to attract. They then made contact with those companies. They included: Anytime Fitness, Arby’s, Best Buy, BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, Buffalo Wild Wings, California Pizza Kitchen, Chick-Fil-A, Cinemark Theaters, Corner Bakery, Cracker Barrel, Einstein Bros Bagels, Fry’s Electronics, Kohl’s, Marshall’s, Men’s Wearhouse, Norstrom Rack, Old Navy, Pacific Cinemas, Panera Bread, Pet Supplies Plus, PetSense, Raising Cane’s, Regal Cinemas, Sephora, Sprouts Farmers Market, Stein Mart, Studio Movie Grill, Target, TJ Maxx, TJX Companies Brands, Top Golf / Drive Shack, Trade Joe’s, Tuesday Morning, Ulta Beauty and WinCo Foods.

Hallam said he couldn’t reveal a name but said the city expects to soon announce that a national company intends to relocate into a former used large retail building on Hatch Road thanks to TRC’s efforts.

“And that’s despite COVID and the slowdown of so many national retailers and or … just putting all expansions on hold,” said Hallam. “We see the next 12 months as really important to be at the leading edge of the tide as things turn around and COVID relaxes and retailers start looking at communities for new locations once again. And we’re poised with the Hatch Road opportunities and the Ceres Gateway opportunities to be right on the cutting edge of having information, customized and packaged for these retailers.”

Hallam suggested TRC is needed to compete against Modesto and Turlock, which both have far more industrial and retail land available. 

Councilman Bret Silveira said the reports issued by TRC are thorough and that “the $25,000 is money well spent.”

Condit made a motion to dismiss the company and spend the money on a grant or loan to a small business. While Mayor Javier Lopez seconded the motion, he sided with Councilmembers Linda Ryno and Bret Silveira in opposing Condit’s idea. Silveira then motioned to extend the contract which resulted in a 3-1 vote.