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New look, hopes for downtown
Fourth Street retail vacancies have dropped even before renovation started
Fourth Street is in the middle of an extensive renovation project contracted to George Reed, Inc., but there is full sidewalk access to all businesses there. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

The makeover of Fourth Street is underway, thanks to a $3.9 million investment of the city of Ceres. City officials have envisioned making downtown more attractive to businesses while retrofitting the storm drainage infrastructure to handle mixed uses such as apartments above ground-floor businesses. But since the vacancy rate of existing retail space on Fourth Street has never been lower, the new look and feel of downtown just may generate interest in new construction of additional retail.

"I think it will be a shot in the arm to show people that the city is investing in downtown," said Steve Hallam, the city's economic development manager. "It will add some new excitement."

More excitement will come with the addition of a rail station in downtown Ceres when the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) line is extended to Merced, predicts Hallam.

"I think those two things, and the picture of people thinking, wow, a station stop and completing the downtown improvements, I think there's a wonderful opportunity for people to see that the city believes in downtown and I think it will encourage others to do the same," said Hallam.

Ceres City Manager Toby Wells said downtown has potential for development but participation of property owners is the key. With redevelopment agencies shut down by Gov. Jerry Brown, cities no longer have the funds to help assist in private development. Cities now must rely on private money coming from the likes of Shane Parson, who has done more than anyone in recent years to affect the renovation of downtown Ceres. Parson has been busy buying up properties and filling those spaces with businesses.

"He's worked hard to negotiate deals to get his buildings occupied," said Hallam. "The nice thing is it has been businesses that offer personal services or professional services rather than more low-end businesses."

Parson purchased the two-story building that houses Steps Dance Studio and immediately went to work on improving the exterior which had been neglected for decades. The façade was stripped of chipped paint and sports a new color scheme.

Flawless Hair Salon & Makeup Studio at 2938 Fourth Street, is another new addition to downtown, thanks to Parson.

Parson has purchased the former Post Office building at 2930 Fourth Street and has leased it out for a new Pasta Pronto Italian restaurant. He anticipates the restaurant, which has two locations in Modesto, will open in two months.

The former Correia's Jewelers building has been filled by Valley Registration Services. When former longtime Ceres plumber Brian Carlin retired, that space has been occupied by different uses but now Natalie Mercado's Farmers Insurance office.

The small space carved out from the former Melody Bible Book Store is now a storefront for We Are the Artist Photography studio.

Activity is occurring in the former Youngdale's building at the southern end of the new gateway to the downtown shopping district. At 3058 Fourth Street, remodeling work is underway by Granite Gallery of Turlock for a new lighting store.

"It's good to see some long-term vacancies filled," commented Hallam.

Just as downtown is undergoing a streetscape facelift, at least another large Fourth Street building is vacant after the retirement of the DeBoard & Govett chiropractic practice at 2943 Fourth Street.

City officials herald what Parson is doing but also feel frustration from the lack of buy-in from other landlords. Hallam is trying to convince downtown kingpin Jim Delhart - he owns multiple buildings on Fourth Street with worn facades - to entertain the idea of remodeling the old Bank of Ceres building to be used for a micro-brewery or pub. Sitting on the prominent corner of Fourth and Lawrence, the building is underutilized as a warehouse for mattresses sold at Delhart's furniture store across the street. Hallam said he is offering assistance to Delhart to draw up architectural designs for the building.

Service-related businesses, such Elite Family Systems for foster care, are good for downtown, said Hallam, because while they may not produce taxable sales, they draw more persons to shop there. The city has also been less than enthusiastic, however, about retail spaces on Fourth Street being occupied by churches rather than tax-producing businesses.

"You want a downtown to have people frequenting it, particularly on weekdays and maybe Saturdays," said Hallam. "And the churches we had down there were a traditionally Sunday-only use, maybe a couple of meetings a week in the evening but it's not conducive to drawing other spin-off patrons to the downtown area."

One of Parson's buildings - the former Ceres Courier offices - had been occupied by a church but he now operates his Embroidery Plus business. But Iglesia-El Shaddadi occupies a large grey building - Ceres' only walk-in movie theater during the 1940s - opposite the Wells Fargo Bank.

"Anything along there has tremendous opportunity," said Wells. "Pretty it up or a little more dramatic."

Parson is planning to renovate the front of Embroidery Plus. He said he might consider moving that business off of Fourth Street in replacement of a business that might accent the newer environs.

Hallam said that while there is not a lot of vacant land in downtown on which to construct new retail or professional office complexes, creative thinking has come up with one idea. One concept calls for developing the ground where Whitmore Park is located next to Highway 99 and relocating the park to the Clinton Whitmore Mansion grounds two blocks to the east.

"That idea, thrown out at a General Plan meeting, has me asking maybe we look at new ideas for land uses for downtown," said Hallam. "We lack available land sites and that could be one potential solution for real and new viable great freeway exposure, two-story buildings, downstairs retail, upstairs residential, maybe a catalyst use like a theater or performing arts center or something. Tons of ideas could come from getting excited."

The Downtown Specific Plan, commissioned by the Ceres City Council at a cost of about $350,000 and adopted in early 2011, envisioned a destination downtown with a movie theater, professional offices and retail spaces on ground floors and residential units on second floors, eateries to offer a nightlife atmosphere, additional parking, an expanded civic center and expanded streetscapes. An ingredient of that plan is to infuse 495 more residential units and 1,678 corresponding downtown dwellers in the downtown area. When the plan was adopted six years ago, Mayor Chris Vierra commented the blueprint would probably take 30 to 50 years to come to fruition "realistically."

Wells said the renovation project - coupled with the Downtown Specific Plan - will serve as the framework for when private developers come in.

"You've got to look long," said Wells. "A private owner has to decide what's the best use of their property, can the existing structure and facilities serve what they think is the ultimate best needs. We set the framework with the Specific Plan of showing what they can do; they make the decision on what is the best fit for what they want to do with their property."

Wells said downtown Turlock's renovation started in 1998 in the same way Ceres is charting. A fully developed newer downtown will take decades.

"If you look at it down there (Turlock) today you're starting to really finally see almost 20 years later where folks are actually investing in their properties," said Wells.

Wells doesn't feel Ceres can be compared to Turlock which has more buildings spread over seven blocks along Main Street.

"We have two and a half blocks here. It's a very different overall aesthetic and feel based on the buildings that are in place there or could be in place there. You're not going to put a three-story structure at anyplace in our downtown.

The construction activities by contractor George Reed Inc. is having a noticeable impact on business but Wells said business owners have been consulted. Sidewalks have been kept open to allow for pedestrian access however the walk is farther. The plan is to keep half of a sidewalk open at all times for continued access while new sidewalks are poured.

One of the first goals is to finish a parking lot on the vacant lot across from Wells Fargo Bank. That will give visitors and shoppers more places to park closer to businesses.

Wells said the merchants weighed in on the construction timeline and most preferred a slower construction timeframe as opposed to a rapid one where business would be more severely impacted.

"Obviously it's going to impact the business, no doubt about it. We did talk to every business down there. We could have stretched construction out. We asked them the question: Do you want us to get in and get out and build this as quickly as we can? Or do you want to stretch this out, you know, do half the street at a time and move over and do the other half? It just lengthens the pain and they pretty much universally said get in and out."

A significant part of the project is improving the storm drainage system on Fourth Street. Not only will the sidewalks be widened, but Sawleaf Zelkova and Burgundy Desert Willow trees will be planted into the streets
Mexican fan palms will be planted at the entryways because they "get tall and visible from 99," said Wells.

Parson feels confident the changes will only help downtown.

"Nobody really ever believed - and even I didn't - that the renovation would ever happen," said Parson. "It's going. In reality, I think Ceres has the best off-ramp, especially from the south, of anywhere along 99. I'd like to see the street renamed Main Street."