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Officials seek vision for downtown
Downtown Ceres has a major strength in that it's highly visible and easily accessible from Highway 99. The problem is that there's not a lot being offered there to bring motorists off the freeway.

That observation was shared at a March 11 workshop that brought a consulting firm, city officials, downtown merchants and the public together to talk about ways to improve downtown Ceres. Approximately 30 downtown business and property owners listened to preliminary findings of consultants as well as swap ideas for a more thriving downtown.

"I'd like to see more foot traffic down there," said Ted Smernes, pharmacist and owner of Ceres Drugs on Fourth Street. "It's catch-22. You gotta have the people there for the businesses to succeed. But you've gotta have businesses to draw the people. What comes first?"

In October the City Council ordered a $350,000 development plan to help turn downtown Ceres into a destination spot. The Berkeley firm of Design, Community & Environment (DC&E) was hired to develop the vision as well as an implementation strategy to tap into the potential of downtown Ceres. The firm is conducting a comprehensive analysis of existing and potential markets for retail, office and residential, as well as traffic, parking and infrastructure issues.

Mayor Anthony Cannella spoke to the importance of revitalizing downtown while city staff members talked about the city's commitment to improvements to the area. Cannella stayed for a half hour and left on purpose, saying he wanted the public to share without his influence.

"It was great to see so many property and business owners attend the meeting," said Cannella. "Only by working together can we transform the downtown, so it can recognize its full potential."

Representatives of DC&E shared a slide show of some success stories of downtown Lodi, Hughson and Turlock. Examples featured improved building facades but upgraded streetscapes and decorated parking lots and walkways.

Listed as a strength of Ceres' downtown is that it is perhaps the only one along Highway 99 that is as visible and as accessible. Consultants suggest that a unique eatery - not a recognized chain like Applebee's - is very much needed to draw freeway visitors to downtown.

Those who attended broke up into small groups, armed with colored pens and maps of downtown to outline their thoughts about downtown's strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Each work group then had the opportunity to present their ideas to the whole group. Ideas included adopting an historical look for downtown given existing historical buildings, creating pedestrian links throughout downtown and incorporating mixed-use development in the core.

Smernes said most everyone wants to see more thriving businesses and restaurants to draw from town and the freeway.

"Basically there was a consensus that they'd like to see ... eateries, coffee shops, donut shops, sit-down restaurants and specialty shops versus major chain type of stores," said Smernes. "They want to keep the historical aspect to it so if we do major remodeling or facades they want a historical look."

Downtown contains a hodge-podge collection of older buildings, most of which date back to the 1920s and 1930s. One block from Fourth Street is the Daniel Whitmore Home, built in 1870, and the Clinton Whitmore Mansion built in 1903. The Odd Fellows Hall, with its dated 1961 Paint Up Day mural, is one of the most prominent buildings in downtown. Across the street is the stone TID building, which was TID's first headquarters, built in 1905. Farther down Fourth Street is the building known as "the castle," which was built in the 1910s. The two-story building at the northwest corner of Fourth and Lawrence was constructed in the 1930s and is now home to a dance studio.

Some in small groups suggested that some uses in downtown need to change. Brian Carlin, a former Ceres mayor who has an office on Fourth Street for his plumbing business, said if downtown were starting with a blank slate, it would not have uses like gas stations or repair shops in highly visible locations. He said his group reached a consensus that downtown storefronts should not be used as stock rooms, a reference to the current use of the former Bank of Ceres building, built in 1917. The building is used by former mayor Jim Delhart to store mattresses sold in his nearby furniture store.

Carlin expressed skepticism that downtown will change unless there is an infusion of private money. Smernes said he would consider putting money into renovating the facade of his 1964 building "if it's not cost prohibitive."

Smernes agreed with City Manager Brad Kilger that the addition of a $7 million Ceres Community Center between Third and Fourth streets south of Magnolia will be a big economic shot in the arm for downtown.

"That is a start," said Smernes. "Something needs to be the igniter and that's going to be the igniter."

He believes transforming of downtown will take decades and will probably requires assistance from the city.

"It's not an overnight transformation. You're looking at a 10-, 15-, 20-year scheme."

Kilger noted that the Ceres Redevelopment Agency will be able to assist with future improvements to downtown but noted "the success has to come from the business community."

"We hope to be partnering, hopefully we can provide some incentives for business relocation and expansion," Kilger said.

Concerns were voiced about the criminal element that lives in and near the downtown area. It was mentioned that as the area is redeveloped the criminal element should be less of a problem.

There were some hints that some buildings may have to come down to accomplish the goals for a vibrant downtown but no specifics offered. Kilger said it's too early to tell what buildings might be razed in order to accommodate a new downtown. He said the city has no idea at the moment which building have structural integrity to fit in with the downtown plan.

On the immediate horizon for downtown are plans for Turlock Irrigation District to construct a new Ceres office on the site on Third Street across from Whitmore Park. The site has been vacant since rubble was cleared of the burned-out Silva's Family Dining.

The consultants are examining the downtown core going as far north to Whitmore, Ninth Street on the east, El Camino on the west and Park Street to the south. City officials have stated they want the document, being funded by the Ceres Redevelopment Agency, to be used and not put on a shelf and forgotten.

Talk of revitalizing downtown goes back to the late 1980s when the city developed architectural schemes which never produced any significant results. In the 1990s a Ceres Downtown Revitalization Area Board (CDRAB) was formed and merchants assessed for improvements. The private money and city redevelopment money was spent on three roundabouts, a centerpiece clock, old fashioned street lamps, pop-out planters, and street trees with plastic tree grates. But downtown still suffers from a lack of services that do little to draw traffic off of visible Highway 99.

Kilger said the effort will come up with recommended alternatives which will be reviewed by the Planning Commission.

Three more workshops will be held, the next set for Tuesday, April 8 at 7 p.m. at the Ceres American Legion Memorial Building, corner of Ninth and Lawrence. The community is invited.

For more information, citizens can call Redevelopment & Housing Coordinator, Jack Newell at 538-5630.