Dusting off downtown for series of upgrades

CERES -- After years of neglect, downtown is getting some much needed attention.

The City Council hired a consultant to find ways to spark life into the five-block area bordering Highway 99 and turn it into a destination spot for Ceres residents -- and maybe even out-of-towners.

Today, downtown's streets are sparsely populated by a few salons, dance studios, real estate companies, restaurants and thrift stores. About a quarter of the store and office space is empty.

"We're getting there -- slowly," said Sally Lara, whose family owns Alfonoso's Mexican Restaurant on Lawrence Street. "We've got roundabouts and a clock. The city is helping."

Most of Alfonoso's customers have been dining there for decades. Now their children and grandchildren eat at the restaurant, known for its fajitas and homemade enchilada sauce. But for a downtown to thrive, it must expand beyond that base of loyal fans, officials said.

Downtown has spent at least a decade in disrepair -- vacant stores and offices, dirty streets and weed-infested lots. City leaders want to change that and hope a new community center along with more coffee shops, restaurants, shopping and offices will help.

Strip malls along the city's main thoroughfares, such as Hatch and Mitchell roads, have contributed to downtown's downward spiral. So, too, has Modesto's Vintage Faire Mall and Turlock's shopping centers.

Consultants working for Design, Community & Environment of Berkeley are in the early stages of analyzing what form Ceres' downtown should take and establishing an advisory committee. They hope to have the first community meeting next month and present their final report to the council by September.

Ideas thrown out by city leaders, staff and residents include developing a theme for downtown similar to Solvang's Danish windmills; offering apartments on the second story of stores and offices; upgrading sidewalks to make it safer for people to walk and bike downtown; and upgrading buildings.

Consultants also must clearly define downtown. Where it is depends on who you ask, but most agree it's bordered to the north by Magnolia Street, to the south by Park Street just three blocks away, and west from Sixth Street to Highway 99. A park, school, city offices and houses are within those boundaries.

The key to any redevelopment is persuading property and business owners to cooperate, as they will reap the benefits in the long run. Businesses need help promoting their services to people who live outside the area, Lara said. Holding events downtown and a few nights a week that businesses stay open late would help as well, she said.

Ceres has a stagnant Chamber of Commerce composed of few members and no downtown association. The void leaves little, if any, support for businesses.

For a thriving downtown, Lara suggested fostering the development of small shops.

"We can compete with the personal attention we provide," she said. "We need to offer a little bit of everything."

The bulk of the funding for downtown's face-lift will come from grants and loans. The city's Redevelopment Agency is the lead group. The agency uses increases in tax revenue to provide seed money for further redevelopment.

City staff issued a $36.6 million bond in 2006 to pay for redevelopment projects. About $4 million has been spent on construction of Fire Station 4 and two downtown projects -- building the community center and upgrading security at the Whitmore House museum. Future projects include parks, infrastructure improvements, and the Mitchell and Service roads interchange.

Part of the redevelopment plan includes setting design guidelines for businesses and enforcing city codes regarding signs, vehicle storage and garbage ordinances.

City leaders admit it will take nearly five years before improvements are noticeable.

"Eventually, I want to do everything in town," Mayor Anthony Cannella said. "I want to load my kids on their bikes so we can ride downtown to the park or ride down to get ice cream or ride down to get lunch. That's what I want."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.