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Downtown changes have been slow
Reports given on status of downtown revitalization
New Building
Improvements in downtown Ceres have been slow and with strictly private money and included a facade improvement of this 1930 building with resurfacing and new paint. The city has a program in place to offer financial assistance for facade improvements but no takers since the strings attached include hiring the work at prevailing wage. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Big plans are in store to rehabilitate Fourth Street this year with $1.2 million in city money. But downtown improvements have been much more low-key as far as the Ceres Downtown Revitalization Area is concerned.

Merchants pay into the district to empty sidewalk trash receptacles, maintain sidewalks and landscaping, hang seasonal banners, cover street and holiday lighting and to help underwrite events to draw people to downtown. But the more ambitious projects - like the façade improvement program - have fallen flat.

Members of the Ceres Planning Commission, acting as the Ceres Downtown Revitalization Area Board (CDRAB) board, received two reports last week on the activities for the third quarter of the fiscal year.

"Really there's no surprises from what was anticipated," said Steve Hallam, who oversees the special district as the city's economic development manager.

Expenses for the third quarter have been low, said Hallam, at $1,940 with total revenue coming in at $5,274.

The CDRAB board budgeted $13,000 in revenues for Fiscal Year 2016-17 with $11,098 coming in so far. The fund has been accumulating funds - collected from downtown business and property owners - to be spent on downtown improvements and programs designed to make it a more attraction business district.

The city allocated $25,000 for the façade improvement program and $1,000 for way finding signage. However, no landlords have taken the city up on a grant and loan program because of the requirement that work has to be paid under prevailing wage.

The board also has not delivered on signage.

Hallam reported on some property ownership and lease changes in downtown which he feels is "good news overall for the district." He cited the closure of three social service and/or ecumenical uses replaced by a broader mix of professional service uses.

"There's still a couple of vacancies but that's a good move as the Downtown Specific Plan can move those non-attraction uses out."

He noted that the city is getting ready to launch its Fourth Street beautification project, which is independent of CDRAB. The city is investing $1.2 million in funds that once were Ceres Redevelopment Agency bond proceeds. In December the city invited downtown merchants and property owners to a two-hour workshop to discuss the makeover. The meeting attracted what amounts to a 90 percent representation of downtown business owners. The result was some refinements to the plan.

"Those improvement plans have now been finalized and the project is out to bid and we're looking at awarding next month and construction in the next three to four months," said Hallam.

Two existing Fourth Street roundabouts will be removed, trees will be planted in spaces now occupied by parking stalls and artistically designed arches will define the two main entrances into the downtown Ceres district. The city is hopeful that the new look will entice private investment into Ceres' oldest shopping district.

The idea of moving trees out into the street would enable 10-foot-wide sidewalks to be utilized for outdoor café dining or latte drinking. Trees - possibly palm trees - will be planted nine feet out from the existing curb. The concept calls for Fourth Street to be striped so that bikes and cars share the same thoroughfare, similar to what one sees in beach communities. Fourth Street will become narrower to slow traffic.

The goal is to have everything finished by the end of 2017.

In late 2015 the city launched a funding assistance program in the hopes it would spur downtown merchants and property owners to improve building facades. Hallam said that the requirement for work to be done at prevailing wage has resulted in no takers.

The city is offering 50-50 matching funds for owners who are willing to make private investments to update downtown storefronts. The program has two components. The first, funded by $25,000 out the assessments paid by downtown businesses, has the city issuing dollar-for-dollar grants of up to $1,500 for professional architectural and design assistance for owners desiring a new exterior. The firms will come up with ideas to spruce up facades. The cap on costs of design is $3,000. 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 a pool of $250,000 for matching grants of between $1,000 and $10,000 for the actual construction work.

Because public funds are used, all work is subject to much higher prevailing wage rates. Because prevailing wage can increase the cost of work by 50 percent, enthusiasm for the program has been quashed, said Hallam.

Hallam discussed efforts to get a handle on slipping revenue. He reported that the assessments are based on retail receipts and noted the lack of many retailers in downtown. But he also learned that out of 44 businesses that are assessed a fee, 19 were in a state of delinquency. Because the city Finance Department went through a transition from moving the administration of business licenses to a contract firm, Hallam was delayed in finding out about the delinquencies to go after them.

The city has contracted with a revenue enhancement company called MuniServices to monitor sales tax and assessments.

"The good news is the company's been very successful in going door to door on some of the reluctant payees. I've had some good luck. I made direct contact with our three most significant delinquent accounts. We now have less than five downtown businesses that are in a state of delinquency with a total amount less than $750 but we are working on those too."

Some of the delinquencies were as low as $50 and under, but overall the deficiency was under $4,000. Now only five are delinquent on payments to CDRAB with $750 now owed.

As a result, CDRAB revenue in the second and third quarters "have been much healthier."