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Will downtown makeover spur private development?
This 1960s sign above an El Camino Avenue gas station is symbolic of the neglect and deferred maintenance that have allowed downtown Ceres to become a stagnant commercial center. The city is hoping that the renovation of Fourth Street will change all that. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

When $3.1 million worth of new streetscape and infrastructure in downtown Ceres is finished this month, what then?

Only time will tell.

City officials are hoping the infusion of cash and updated looks will spark an economic development of business and property owners to step up and make their own investments. At the same time, they acknowledge that redeveloping a downtown solely depends on the private sector and doesn't happen overnight.

"I think there's going to be some real excitement when it comes about," said Shane Parson, a downtown businessman. "I really do. It's going to be beautiful when it's done. This needed to happen."

Downtown Ceres clearly has clearly not kept with the times. City officials began talking about redevelopment in the late 1980s but enthusiasm never quite caught on. The introduction of street trees, a centerpiece clock, intersections with stamped red concrete and two roundabouts helped some but private investment was mostly disregarded - with the exception of when Turlock Irrigation District investment $1 million into its new Third Street office opposite Whitmore Park in 2009. Since then, time and neglect had taken their toll on storefronts, especially at the southern end of Fourth Street.

City officials have bristled at certain uses that handicap downtown's potential for a respectable commercial base. Several buildings have been used by churches that bottle up retail space for limited worship experiences. Cars overflow on Jack's Automotive, a business that would be better in an industrial zone. And at the southeast corner of Fourth and Lawrence streets, the old Bank of Ceres building - envisioned by Ceres Chamber of Commerce President Renee Ledbetter as a great place for a microbrewery - continues to be underutilized as a mattress warehouse for Jim Delhart's furniture store across the street.

Much of the signage stretches back decades, such as the rusting 60's-era curved arrow sign for Eagle Gas - while the towering bank sign is draped with black material to cover the name of bank that last did business during the Reagan Administration. The frame of the yellow sign for Delhart's Home Furnishings is rusting like the city-owned water tower two blocks over. The façade of Ceres Drugs bears an 80's style plywood overhang. Maintenance on the old house home to Sole Saver Shoe Repair has been neglected - paint has blistered off the façade of and the asphalt roof is sagging and missing tabs - that shop owner Frank Cardenas is moving to the Richland Shopping Center.

In an effort to correct downtown decay, Steve Hallam, the city's Redevelopment/Economic Development Manager, attempted to stir up interest in sprucing up downtown but efforts fell flat. Hallam was disappointed that a façade improvement assistance program had no takers - perhaps because an expensive string is attached: City money is involved, thus all labor on façade improvements is subject to prevailing wages. The city continues to offer 50-50 matching funds for owners to update downtown storefronts.

Shane Parson has perhaps done more to redevelop downtown than anyone in the past decade. He has been privately snatching up properties and not only fixed them given some care to them but filling them with businesses. As one example, he purchased the former Ceres Courier building vacated in 2012 and today operates his Embroidery Plus business. Parson is planning to renovate the front of Embroidery Plus and said he might consider moving that business off of Fourth Street in replacement of a business that might accent the newer environs.

Parson also purchased 2938 Fourth Street, now home to Flawless Hair Salon & Makeup Studio. He bought the former Post Office building at 2930 Fourth Street and is leasing it for a new Pasta Pronto Italian restaurant which is expected to open in two weeks. Across the street, Parson invested in the flaky facade, two-story building that was home to Ceres Drugs in the 1930s. The building was resurfaced and today is attractive with its modern green color scheme.

He still needs to find a tenant for the old Correia's Jewelers store. Ideas for tenants include an antique dealer or a wine store.

Hallam has been impressed with Parson's ability to get things done as a private-sector dynamo. "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."

Other private money has dripped in. At the entrance to downtown near the freeway, the former Youngdale's store 3058 Fourth Street, is home to a new lighting store operated by Granite Gallery of Turlock.

Brimming with optimism despite the resistance he's encountered, Hallam sees bright days for downtown Ceres. He points to the coming of a train station for the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) line that should infuse more traffic into downtown.

There is also potential for vacant parcels to be filled by new retailers. There is the double lot across from Alfonso's Mexican Restaurant. Hallam's imagination swims at the idea of the possibility of developing Whitmore Park next to Highway 99 for commercial purposes while a new park is developed blocks away at the Clinton Whitmore Mansion. He envisions the existing park site being used for mixed uses with ground floor retail and residences above; or possibly for a theater or performing arts center - all with freeway visibility.

Still, the city has not found the occasion yet to implement its Downtown Specific Plan, adopted in 2011 at a cost of about $350,000. It calls for development of a "destination downtown" with a movie theater, professional offices and retail spaces on ground floors and residential units on second floors, eateries to offer 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.

City Manager Toby Wells said with redevelopment funding a thing of the past in California - thanks to a governor to seized assets to balance the state's budget -downtown dreams are at the mercy of private business.

"You've have to look long," said Wells. "A private owner has to decide what's the best use of their property. 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."