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Lots must change if Ceres wants to attract business, young professionals
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An ancient Chinese proverb states that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

How true.

But the city's interest in pushing for a vigorous economic development plan - which hinges on changing the physical and perceived image of Ceres - is going to be a long and arduous task.

Last week the Ceres City Council engaged in a study session centered on stepping up Ceres' economic development strategy. Simply put to the layman, city officials want to bolster the economy and tax base of Ceres by drawing in new businesses and strengthening the ones that are already here.

The presentation was fascinating. City leaders stressed the need for Ceres to change the way it does business, thinking about how every city decision will impact - to the positive or negative - the business community and Ceres' ability to entice new business and industry. Complacency is the enemy to progress, noted Bryan Briggs, the city's economic development director.

The Ceres economy obviously is not as strong as it could be. The city is bleeding shopping dollars (and thus tax dollars) to our closer neighboring shopping districts, particularly Turlock and Modesto. The bleeding is reflected in the fact that all of Ceres shopping centers - with the exception of the Ceres Walmart - are "underperforming" to quote Briggs. The national average is that one square foot of retail commercial space produces $325 in taxable sales and all are under $125 except for Walmart.

City Manager Art deWerk noted how the whole culture of the city organization must be on top of things and change its way of thinking. "In order for us to be economically viable and self-sustaining there has to be a quantum leap in our mindsets, how we do business and what kinds of actions we take policy wise and investment wise," deWerk told the council.

He stressed the need for Ceres to clean up its image - both physical and publicly held beliefs.

Herein lies the problem. The city can do what it can in a limited fashion to crack down on blight issues, beautifying barren freeway interchanges, improving public rights of way and flushing beggars from the streets and atop the Hatch Road overpass. But there remains a culture that just doesn't care about painting one's house or mowing one's yard or getting the abandoned vehicles out of the driveway and moving them to action is going to be monumental.

"Economic development is intrinsically linked to how desirable a community is," deWerk stated. He used Rebecca Ryan's seven indicators of a desirable community to rhetorically ask the council if Ceres appealed to the young professionals and when he asked the question he said "I already know the answer." Of course Ceres does not meet the indexes that are considered important to young professionals 35 and younger which include: commitment to green space, a deep bench of occupational options and opportunities for lifelong learning, the availability of after hour "cool stuff" to do and the physical connectedness of a community.

The city, of course, regularly has made attempts to "sell" Ceres to industry and business. But in deciding if a city is worth the investment, corporations analyze demographics to determine if a community will support the business enterprise. The former planning director Charlie Woods once told me the story of how he brought Applebee's corporate decision makers to look into Ceres before Applebee's had any restaurants in Stanislaus County. They looked at Ceres but over their shoulder liked what they saw in Modesto and opened the one north of Vintage Faire Mall. There are now three Applebee's in Stanislaus County and Ceres still doesn't have one.

It will take years - if not decades - to improve the conditions in Ceres and improve demographics that appeal to the business community. An estimated 21.1 percent of all Ceres households live at or below the poverty level. The median annual household income in Ceres is $48,550 which is $13,081 less than California as a whole. That means they have less disposable income to spend on goods and services and certainly aren't buying pleasure craft or high-end furniture.

No doubt, poverty and income are related to educational shortcomings. Cereans tend to be less educated than residents living elsewhere in California. As an example, 66.8 percent of those aged 25 and older in Ceres have earned high school diplomas when the state figure is 80.8 percent. Only 9.4 percent in Ceres have earned a bachelor's degree or higher when countywide that number is 16.1 percent and statewide it's 30.9 percent.

Then there is the language barrier, which is a barrier to improving social and financial standings. An estimated 54.1 percent of Ceres citizens live in a household where English is not spoken! And 44.9 percent of Ceres households speak Spanish, of which 20.2 percent speak English "less than well."

Unfortunately, reports about high auto theft rates and gang crimes in the county and the meth problem have caused Forbes Magazine to castigate our area as one of the worst places in the USA to live. Ceres' crime rate fares much better and could be used as a selling point, notes Brandman University's Modesto campus director Nikki Santo, who is an advisor to the city's economic development team.

During the study session Carissa Higginbotham shared how comedy icon Colin Quinn visited Modesto in 2012 and spoke to KFIV radio where he negatively reflected on seeing the jail, the bail bonds place and how he bumped into "feral people," including a Ninth Street person who did seven years in prison. Dave Bowman suggested that Quinn go past the Ninth Street bridge (a half hour south) to see the better areas, prompting Higginbotham to say that Ceres needs to give thought to how it wants to be perceived should the likes of a Colin Quinn visits and is asked for an opinion on the radio. I am not sure Colin Quinn would refrain from roasting Ceres in the same way he did Modesto.

Don't get me wrong. Ceres' biggest asset is its people. Ceres has some really awesome people living here. The town is still friendly, which is another selling point. But all must take an honest look inward and determine what needs to be done. Change needs to occur. In the words of Bob Dylan, "He not busy being born is busy dying." The city's apparent renewed push for economic development is exciting and refreshing. I like the optimism I hear but there are realities that conditions are what they are and it will take decades to reserve them.

Still, like Briggs points out, the city should not limit itself by past experiences. He retold the story of how the elephant can be trained to think he is limited by a rope linked to a short stake when in reality it can easily pull itself loose from the mooring and take off.

It's good that the council seemed excited about the discussion as well. Mayor Chris Vierra stressed the need to think like business leaders, the need to be "hard hitting" on code enforcement and bolstering development standards, such as developing move-up housing. Eric Ingwerson said the city could start cleaning up the entryways to Ceres and Bret Durossette spoke of the desire to attract a recreational feature that no other community in the area does as well as making Ceres a place where high school graduates want to return to after college. Ken Lane looks forward to policy changes to show the city is moving forward.

Ceres, it's time to start the steps in a new pair of walking shoes. Make that a pair of running shoes. There's a long journey ahead to travel, one not for the faint of heart.

How do you feel? Let Jeff know at