CERES — Downtown has a prime location with easy access to Highway 99; still, the business vacancy rate is near 50 percent.
Just 37 businesses operate in the area known as the Ceres Downtown Revitalization Area, bordered by El Camino Avenue to the west, Magnolia Street to the north, Sixth Street on the east and Park Street to the south.
There are bars, a florist, restaurants, a dance studio and even a full- service pharmacy but there is no large anchor business that will increase foot traffic to the others. For that matter, a few areas are so rundown they are considered by some residents as unsafe to walk at night.
The Ceres City Council along with staff, residents and business owners, discussed some of the challenges of developing the area during a study session Monday evening focusing on how to spend fees paid by businesses within the revitalization area.
The assessments for years have paid for programs and services such as streetlights, landscaping and concerts in the park, but since being imposed by ordinance in 1988, have done little to develop the area.
A downtown specific plan four years in the making proposed grand ideas that would raise the downtown's skyline with three-story, multiuse buildings, a cineplex entertainment area and more. But the $21 million plan went from an exciting prospect to a distant dream four months after its 2010 debut when word came from Sacramento that the state would stop funding redevelopment agencies.
As of now, the downtown area's only reliable source of funding is from the assessments, which bring in about $16,000 a year, according to Redevelopment and Economic Development Manager Bryan Briggs. The fund has a balance of about $90,000.
Some business owners who pay anywhere from $120 to $500 a year in assessments feel they are not getting a return, according to San Dee Gutierrez, co-owner of Sweet Lu's, a cocktail lounge on Fourth Street.
She was among a handful of business owners who showed up to the meeting despite an invitation to all by Briggs and council members who went door to door to encourage participation in deciding how to spend the money.
Briggs said he sent surveys to all the businesses, and only seven were returned.
Acting City Manager Art de Werk said he thinks there is a sense among business owners that efforts to work with the city wouldn't amount to much. He said ideas have been floated in the past and amounted to nothing but he feels the current staff and council have enthusiasm and the drive to see through future ideas.
Cinema? Loans? Repairs?
De Werk said he's discussed with business owners the ideas of recruiting a microbrewery and a bakery and he still likes the idea of a movie theater.
Councilman Eric Ingwerson pointed out that the age and condition of many downtown storefronts deter potential business owners because it likely will cost more to repair wiring and plumbing than starting up in one of the outlying strip malls.
He suggested studying the possibility of a loan incentive program to attract business and pursuing grants for economic development.
Brenda Herbert, owner of Ceres Floral on Fifth Street, said a simple beautification would be a great start. Others at the meeting echoed the sentiment, and Briggs said assessments could be used for something such as a façade improvement program.
"We are sitting on a goldmine downtown and we are not utilizing it," Herbert said. "I'll get out there with a paint brush if necessary, but let's get Ceres on the right track."