Get excited about the planned makeover of downtown Ceres - or at least the two central blocks of Fourth Street - but make no mistake about it. Substantial private investment will be needed to convert the tired and sleepy downtown into a vibrant commercial area.
Dress up downtown all you want but if no private bucks are going will be invested, it's all just a pipe dream. However, the streetscapes envisioned by city leaders could provide the spark that's needed.
With all due respect to Leonard Shepherd, who appeared before the July 18 Planning Commission meeting boisterously voicing disapproval of downtown rejuvenation plans, Ceres' oldest shopping area is long overdue for help. Shepherd likes downtown Ceres just the way it is and wants it to remain untouched, as if there's something sacred about the buildings, some of which are falling apart. He mentioned how it would be a shame for anything to happen to the Sole Saver show repair shop building which was once the Ceres police station in the late 1940s. Maybe so but as Shane Parson said, "pretty soon it and the building next to it may fall down." Parson's point is that downtown is decaying and that seems to be okay with those who own the buildings. Without keeping up with the times, people just don't want to do business in downtown.
Aside from the investment that is needed just to arrest the decay in downtown, there is nothing to draw travelers off of Highway 99 into downtown. That's a shame because there is no other downtown as visible up and down 99 like the one in Ceres. Don't get me wrong; there are businesses that serve a need for locals, such as a pharmacy, a bank, a TV repair shop, a furniture store, a chiropractor, a gas station and an automotive repair shop. But they are not the types of businesses that will cause someone to spot Ceres from the ribbon of highway and say, "Hey, this is a cool little town, let's check out Ceres."
Where are the cafes, bistros, gift shops, antique shops or courtyard retailers?
Downtown Ceres has nothing unique as a draw, like a restaurant I found in Barstow last May. Passing through on a road trip to Colorado, I was looking for a place to eat and almost opted for the very ordinary and boring Jack in the Box when I spotted a unique restaurant just behind it. We ducked inside DiNapoli's Firehouse and were impressed with unique local flavor. The building, the firehouse décor, the atmosphere was imaginative and unique and fitting for an old desert town that is steeped in mining history. I was glad I stopped there and spent money there.
Imagine a unique eatery of its own for downtown Ceres. If I could let my imagination go wild I'd come up with something like this. We'll call it the Farmhouse Restaurant that has an exterior barn feel with neon, maybe even a smaller scale metal grain silo. It's within sight of the freeway. Maybe the interior has lots of old barn wood, replicas of farm implements, creamery containers, pictures of Daniel Whitmore and early Ceres, maybe wagon wheel themed tables, something reminiscent of Knott's Berry Farm. Maybe people can watch butter being made. That would be a huge draw. Or imagine a microbrewery called Daniel's Brewery, kind of a play on the fact that Daniel Whitmore didn't like alcohol and sold lots to those who committed not to imbibe in alcoholic beverages. It could have an outdoor beer garden area with vine-wrapped gazebo.
Sandblast the IOOF Hall of the dreadful so-yesterday 1961 mural, restore it to the red bricks again and have an artist create and paint a rustic giant "Ceres" on the south side.
Gosh, Ceres could be such an amazing place.
Having been editor of this paper since 1987, I've reported on wave after wave of revitalization efforts. I remember in 1987 how excited then Councilman Paul Caruso, armed with colorful renderings, was about downtown revitalization. In the 1990s, the city added three roundabouts, added street trees with plastic grates that fell apart, and treated Fourth and Lawrence with stamped colored concrete. But nothing took off.
There have been some insurmountable obstacles. Downtown has been locked up for years by owners who have had no desire to do anything. Sure, in the late 1980s the owner of the brick building south of the Bank of Ceres building - which is nothing more than a mattress warehouse - put up green awnings. And across the street a harsh (now faded) red awning was placed on the first floor of the IOOF Hall. But nothing substantive has been accomplished since. The addition of the $1 million TID building on Third Street was an incredible positive addition to downtown but again, it's not a feature that will cause people to drive off 99.
I even got my hopes up in 2014 when Bill Leer proposed an 8,250-square-foot building for Park and Sixth streets. Apparently Leer has abandoned the project for a lack of interest.
I regularly attend church, but downtown Ceres will never live out its potential as a shopping district if vacant buildings are filled with churches. Churches can go into many zoning districts (where there is better parking) but they shouldn't fill space in a unique location such as downtown.
This year the city excitedly put together a façade improvement program to encourage landlords to dress up their storefronts. The city is offering 50-50 matching funds for owners who are willing to make private investments to update downtown storefronts. The program has two components. The first is where the city issues dollar-for-dollar grants of up to $1,500 for professional architectural and design assistance (capped at $3,000) for owners desiring a new exterior. 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. Since the program was made available this year, none of the business or building owners have taken advantage of it. Nobody!
The city is now willing to invest in downtown to the tune of $2 million to $2.5 million for streetscape infrastructure but will the "build it and they will come" approach work? Only time will tell. People pass away and properties change hands. New owners may decide to invest.
I'll be crossing my fingers with the rest of you.
Let's hope this one jars something loose.
How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org