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Economic development plan OKd but falls short
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A $121,100 plan intended to direct Ceres down the path toward greater economic development fell flat in the minds of several members of the Ceres City Council last week. Some members vented about the expensive document but accepted it as complete.

Protesting the final 207-page report, produced over 14 months, was Councilman Mike Kline who was on the lone end of a 4-1 vote to accept the plan.

Last year the council hired Urban Futures to develop an economic development strategic plan, a "road map," for the city to achieve its economic desires. In his pitch last year, Marshall Linn said Urban Futures said his firm would taylor a realistic and flexible program to target specific commercial and industrial firms. He observed that many cities pay a lot of money for plans that do nothing because they "paint a broad brush approach."

However, some councilmembers felt like all they got was a broad brush report for a second time. When Urban Futures presented the initial plan in September several councilmembers expressed their disappointment. Mayor Chris Vierra said the document was a good start but "misses the mark" and then Vice Mayor Ken Lane called it "a little fluff, a little weak in areas."

Acting City Manager Art deWerk, who was replaced on Friday, suggested the final plan is "in my view complete."

"We have the ability now," stated deWerk on March 10, "to move forward and point this city into a future where we're not just ambling along and where we have the ability to understand what kind of attractors we have for business and what we need to do to retain business and give us a footing for a brighter economic future."

Linn said the report was not a panacea and is not intended to be placed upon a shelf.

"If you really follow this, do what it says to do, you will have a hope to at least turn things around here in the city of Ceres," said Linn.

"Making changes in Ceres will take time. Ceres is in the condition that it's in and that's taken place over an extended period of time."

Linn said economic development is driven by the market and noted there is little local government can do. "You have to work hand in hand with the prospector to make it happen."

He recommended that the city do all that it can to improve infrastructure, which it is presently setting out to do. He also recommended the council carve $350,000 out of the general fund to pay for economic development activities, including the hiring of a staff member. Linn also suggests that the council raise fees and fines to generate more money for the general fund.

"That's a lot of money but you also paid a lot of money for this document and you don't want it sitting around on a shelf," Linn stressed to the council.

Business retention and expansion should be a city priority, he said, stating that "it's easier to keep businesses within your city than it is to bring in new people."

A marketing plan is also a must, Linn said, with information ready for business leaders. He also recommended close communication with the Ceres Chamber of Commerce.

Linn turned the discussion back over to the council.
Kline jumped in and announced that he was "still very much disappointed" in the final product and that he refused to accept it as complete.

"I expected something that would identify certain things ... and give you an overview or an insight how to implement those things," said Kline. He specified that the report did not identify what types of businesses and industry Ceres can realistically expect to recruit and obtain.

Linn retorted that his firm ate $24,000 in cost overruns and said "we completed the scope of work, period."
Vice Mayor Bret Durossette was also critical of the report.

"It's almost like you're talking we need to be shovel ready ... but how are we going to get that shovel ready?" asked Durossette. "I asked for a Chilli's or some sort of thing, how do we get that? Again I didn't see that."

Councilman Ken Lane said he remained disappointed but sees the report as a "working document ... that doesn't give us all the answers that we were all looking for."

"I see a document that's going to take a lot of work and... we've got to find $350,000 annually to move this document forward," said Lane.

Mayor Chris Vierra said he was looking for certain "actionable items" like spelling out what size industrial lot depths are needed to create that best fit what manufacturers need today.

"I guess what I was looking for is kind of the specifics that said you know if you build it you'll attract it, that type of concept," said Vierra. "But as I went through the document I realized that there's a lot of good information in here that we could use."

The report states that Ceres may expect to attract 300,000 to 600,000 square feet of the 7.1 million square feet of new industrial buildings projected to be developed in Stanislaus County by 2020. Linn said Ceres could also snag 14,000 to 16,000 square feet of new office space over the same time frame.

The plan outlines that Ceres' best opportunities to grow retail and industry is in the Mitchell Road area near Highway 99 and southwest of Ceres. Linn suggested the retail market in Ceres is "pretty well saturated."

Urban Futures forecasts that over the next five years the county's average annual employment rate will grow by 1.3 percent to 1.6 percent and that unemployment will decrease from 15.5 percent to 14.4 percent by the end of this year and as low as 10.2 percent by 2017.

Real person income is expected to grow by 3 percent in seven years.

Vierra said he is glad the report focusses on business retention and expansion as he knows of several Ceres businesses that need to expand and need alternative sites but stated "we're not talking to them - that's a shame on us."

The mayor said the city has also been shortsighted in not providing enough upper scale housing to keep residents in Ceres.

Renee Ledbetter of the Ceres Chamber chimed in and spoke about what the Chamber is doing to promote business in Ceres but took exception to the claim that Ceres retail opportunities are already saturated.

"There's still an opportunity for us to attract a lot of different retail," said Ledbetter. "I don't think that we necessarily have to go after the big box companies but ... go out and attract the retail market that offers a uniqueness that will make us unique."

Ledbetter said the Chamber, city staff and the Stanislaus County Alliance is "really working well these days and meeting on a regular monthly basis" and talking to businesses and learning of their needs.

She liked the focus on business retention because she is disappointed about the number of businesses that go out of business within six months of a ribbon cutting. Ledbetter said she would like to see prospective business owners counseled before they decide to open up a business to see if the plan is well thought out.

"We don't want to see them closed six months later," said Ledbetter.

The city is in the process of hiring an economic development director, which for now is pegged to last only 14 months. Ledbetter suggested that the city make it a permanent position.

The Chamber is in the process of rolling out a "Shop Ceres" education campaign to strength the Ceres business community. She acknowledged that not everything can be purchased in Ceres "but for a good number of things, groceries, things like that, they should be here."

Speaking for the Chamber, Ledbetter stressed the need for a business incubator program that uses vacant buildings in Ceres and encourages new businesses.