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Downtown ideas sought
Chamber of Commerce officials are teaming up this evening with the city to hear ideas about sprucing up downtown Ceres. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. at the Community Center. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Wanted: Ideas and energy for downtown.

A community workshop seeking input on the future of downtown Ceres will be held at 6 p.m. this evening (Wednesday, Nov. 20) at the Ceres Community Center, 2701 Fourth Street.

The event is being held by the Ceres Chamber of Commerce, the city of Ceres and the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance.

The interactive community workshop is intended to bring together business owners, residents and property owners can expect to learn more about the Downtown Specific Plan and how the Ceres Downtown Revitalization Area Board can help develop the plan.

The meeting will attempt to discuss:

• The potential of what new development could provide in downtown;

• The fees paid by downtown businesses and how they should be utilized;

• Ideas for ways downtown can be made to become a vital center of civic life.

"This is just the first step," said Renee Ledbetter, vice president of the Chamber. "It's been while since these business owners and property owners have met."

The Chamber has renewed a push to improve downtown and delivered a message last month to the city from business owners who are disappointed at the lack of progress.

Downtown merchants are assessed fees that are paid into a fund intended to revitalize downtown. However, some eyebrows were raised when it was learned that a large chunk of that fund - about $5,830 per year - pays for electricity for street lights in downtown. Merchants' money also pays $13,000 a year for landscaping and clean-up services. Other funding goes to hang seasonal decorative banners and helps underwrite the summer Concerts in the Park series.

"We plan to open the floor to discussion and hear what business owners' issues are and take those issues and prioritize them and determine what we can accomplish," said Ledbetter.

At an Oct. 21 roundtable discussion, some ideas for downtown tossed around for discussion included installing "way finding" signs, creating more parking, adding benches or public art, improving building facades, adding more trees and landscaping and building an arch that would clearly delineate downtown as a district to welcome visitors.

The city's economic development director, Bryan Briggs, gave the panel a number of ideas for downtown that included 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.

The Ceres 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.

Ledbetter is hoping to find "someone or a team to find those deep pockets that can come in and make a difference in our community. We are sitting in such a prime location and we need to show some private investors what an investment downtown Ceres can be."

The CDRAB 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.