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Makeover effort in downtown
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The city hopes owners take advantage of a new program to improve facades like Suszannes Ceramics. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

The city of Ceres is promoting its downtown business façade improvement program through a tri-fold brochure that has been sent to landlords and business owners.

Officials are hoping that businesses will chose to invest in their buildings to create a more economically vibrant shopping district in the heart of Ceres. The city's oldest commercial district, with its obvious signs of neglect and lack a cohesive design scheme, does not welcome shoppers, some claim. The city hopes that the new program, which has plenty of strings attached, will kick-start some action.

"It's just one tool in the city's tool box to further enhance the revitalization of downtown," said Steve Hallam, the city's Redevelopment & Economic Development Manager.

The city will allocate 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. Hallam said 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.

Hallam said he is attempting to convince downtown kingpin Jim Delhart to participate in the program to change the looks of the prominent former Bank of Ceres building at the southeast corner of Fourth and Lawrence.

Improvements eligible under the program include:

• Complete makeovers of building exteriors;

• Repairs of facades such as tile, brick and wood work;

• Removal of more recent exterior materials to expose original building materials;

• Scraping, priming and painting of window frames, cornices and store fronts;

• Repairing or replacing windows and doors, awnings, canopies, signage and signage brackets.

Participating businesses or building owners must undergo the city's design assistance component, which Hallam says will ensure that 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. Those firms are Pacific Design Associates, Inc., of Modesto, Vargas-Greene Architecture - Civic Design of Oakland, and WMB of Stockton.

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 commit to keeping the façade improvements looking well maintained for five years.

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 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.
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.
The Ceres Downtown Revitalization Area 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.