CERES -- A rural city of industrial parks and manufacturing silos.
A bedroom community for Modesto and the Bay Area.
A town along Highway 99 people drive through on their way somewhere else.
Residents would argue that those perceptions about Ceres are a thing of the past, but few know what has replaced them. Long considered an extension of south Modesto instead of its own city, officials here are hoping to transform the city of 42,000.
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"The town, it doesn't have a distinct identity," said Carol Whiteside, outgoing president of the Great Valley Center, a Modesto-based growth think tank. "It's not known for itself, it's known as south Modesto. It's a small city overshadowed by a close, larger city. And it hasn't done anything to distinguish itself."
A progressive City Council sprinkled with new members committed to smart planning is leading the effort to give the town a direction, a soul and a much needed identity.
"What's unique to Ceres is we're a medium-sized city with a small-town mind-set," said Mayor Anthony Cannella, longtime resident and son of former mayor Sal Cannella. "Ceres has always had an identity, it's just that Modesto and Turlock have been doing big things and we weren't."
That "small-town" moniker is echoed over and over by residents, politicians and city staff as the one characteristic that distinguishes Stanislaus County's third-largest city.
"What's unique is that our city, even though it has grown, is still a close-knit community," said Phil Reynders, curator of the Ceres Historical Museum and resident since 1947.
Still, as Cannella pointed out, there's a sense that Ceres is becoming the invisible middle child between Modesto and Turlock, the cities with nice shopping centers, cultural and educational centers and reasons for travelers along Highway 99 to stop.
Sonora has its gold. Oakdale its cowboys. Ripon its Dutch heritage. Turlock its university.
Michael Teitz, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and professor emeritus of city and regional planning at the University of California at Berkeley, said Ceres is much like other small valley towns.
"Ceres is a nice place, it's a town that time forgot," said Teitz, whose research focus is the valley. "Towns in the valley have their own identity and they have their own existence, but the reasons for their existence are no longer there -- agriculture and transportation."
That's why city leaders and a drastically shifting populace are triggering the search for a new identity and asking: What does Ceres want to be?
Named after the Roman goddess of agriculture, Ceres is probably best known for Christmas Tree Lane, the drive-in movie theater, flea market, former Rep. Gary Condit and the Mitchell Road thoroughfare that gives drivers a shortcut between Highway 99 and east Modesto.
Hardly the stuff to hang a city's reputation on, especially during a time of change.
With a large population spending hours every day commuting to neighboring cities and the Bay Area, developing a groundswell of community involvement is tough.
The council took a first step by hiring a Bay Area consulting firm to give direction on revitalizing a tired downtown.
"To define itself, Ceres has a number of options," Teitz said. "They can look at their history and try to set themselves by virtue of their history, but that probably won't bring in a significant tourist trade. And people on 99 don't tend to stop too much. ... Many cities (in the area) have defined themselves by strip malls. I don't think they want to do that."
Like most Northern San Joaquin Valley cities over the past 20 years, change has been the one constant in Ceres.
It's rapidly moving from its small, agricultural roots into a medium-sized urban area, with freshly stuccoed strip malls replacing old, dilapidated buildings, and neighborhoods with rough roads giving way to those with fresh rooftops and smooth streets and sidewalks.
Its population, fueled by people moving into the valley from the pricey Bay Area, has skyrocketed in 20 years -- from 26,314 people in 1990 to about 42,000 in 2007 -- a 60 percent increase. By comparison, the state's population has grown by 13.8 percent and Modesto by 27 percent.
The shifting demographics are leading to sprawling housing tracts and division among residents -- many new residents live west of Highway 99 and most longtime residents are in central Ceres, east of the highway.
Jewell Kee, 69, who with husband, Lyode, 76, has lived in Ceres since 1967, likes that the city remains quaint.
"It still has a small-town feel, and I'd like that to stay the same," she said. "I like knowing the police chief and the city councilmen."
The main motivator behind movement into Ceres, along with other valley towns, is lower housing prices. The median price for homes sold in December in Ceres was $296,000, according to real estate tracking firm DataQuick. The state median was $402,000, and the Bay Area's, $587,500 in December.
Diversity has grown with the population.
Latinos have surged from 13 percent of the population in 1980 to 38 percent by 2000, the most recent year for which data is available. At the same time, the white population, once at 81 percent, dipped to 50 percent in 2000. City officials estimate more than four in 10 residents were Latino by 2007.
Karina Castellaños and her husband, Juan Carlos Godinez, moved to Ceres from Nebraska in 2005 and immediately felt at home. Ceres is cheaper than most county cities, she said. Also, Castellaños said being able to talk to friends and neighbors in Spanish reminds her of Jalisco, Mexico, her hometown.
"I guess that's why a lot of other Latinos are making Ceres their home," she said in Spanish.
Amid the changes, city officials are trying to preserve Ceres' small-town atmosphere and, at the same time, find money to fund an increased need for infrastructure-related services such as water, sewer and police.
Those dollars will come from higher fees charged to land developers and consumers, and an increased sales tax, among other sources.
"For a long time, we've been focused on the problems at hand," such as trying to keep up with sewer and water services, Cannella said, and being more proactive than reactive.
"We've been so focused on short-term objectives," the mayor said. "If we establish long-term goals, the short-term takes care of itself."
Like many valley towns, housing remains central to city planning and politics, although the regional standstill will extend the timeline of some projects. Newly completed Eastgate, a subdivision south of Hatch Road and east of Mitchell Road, brought 1,600 homes. Two more developments, Copper Trails and Maple Glen, both south of Service Road, will bring in 1,600 homes sometime in the next four to seven years, depending on when the housing market picks up. Another two tracts planned for south and west Ceres someday will add hundreds more.
City officials acknowledge the need to steer away from just building houses. They want to offer more jobs, shops, schools, parks and entertainment.
"The real question is, 'What's a normal, balanced commu-nity?' " City Manager Brad Kil-ger said.
Job creation and economic development have been an uphill battle in Ceres, mainly because of competition from Modesto and Turlock, lim-ited land within the city limit and a work force that is comparatively less educated than the state, and more specifically, Turlock and Modesto.
Ideally, cities should have 1.5 jobs for every household, according to a 2003 report by the Inter-Regional Partnership, a five-county agency formed in 1998 to analyze and respond to the imbalance of jobs and housing development between the Bay Area and the Central Valley. In 2000, Ceres recorded 1.37 jobs per household, according to the report, which projected 1.11 per household by 2025 unless the city changed course. For 2000, Modesto's rate was 1.25 and Turlock's was 1.28.
The top employer in Ceres is the Ceres Unified School District with 1,400 workers. Others include Gallo Winery, Stanislaus County, The Home Depot and Wal-Mart. One of the few agricultural manufacturers left is Bronco Winery, producer of low-cost Charles Shaw wine.
The housing boom paved the way for a Wal-Mart, a Raley's and a Home Depot in the past 15 years. Two industrial parks opened in 2003 and 2005.
But the city has struggled to move beyond that first tier of economic expansion that generally brings low-paying retailers. Consultants are completing environmental studies for a Wal-Mart Supercenter, planned for a site two miles from the current store. The designs have left many residents asking if Ceres can attract higher-end businesses.
In most cities, auto sales and restaurants tend to be the biggest sales tax drivers. Ceres, in the first quarter of 2007, was one of the few cities in the state to have gas stations among its top three revenue generators, according to a MuniServices study. Department stores were ranked first and retail building materials third.
In fact, the city ranked behind Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale and the state average in per capita sales tax income, the study reported.
Ceres officials understand they need to strive for economic prosperity through multiple approaches.
"There's no recipe," Teitz said. "There (are) no magic bullets."
But there are opportunities within reach, city leaders say:
Combine resources with other cities and county agencies, such as sharing workers and building infrastructure -- roads and water lines -- together
Work with the Ceres Unified School District and local colleges to offer an educated work force to attract employers
Encourage businesses to expand rather than try to bring in huge companies that need large parcels of land or extensive water and sewer hook-ups, neither of which the city has
Build on what is already in the city
So, what's already there?
Public officials who have shown a willingness to push forward through the most difficult times, and none more so than the shooting death three years ago of police Sgt. Howard Stevenson
A solid partnership with the school district, one that has led to five additional elementary schools and one more high school since 2001
The potential from its proximity to Highway 99, which will be enhanced in future years by improved offramps linking to Ceres' main thoroughfares
A newly passed half-cent sales ax increase aimed at bringing in more police and firefighters
A sports complex that includes soccer fields and, when finished, will boast softball fields, basketball courts and other amenities sitting near a long-established golf course
No doubt, Ceres has some catching up to do in distinguishing itself among not only its neighbors to the north and south, but its residents as well. It faces the challenge of balancing growth and maintaining the small-town appeal its residents hold close to their hearts.
"Small cities have amazing persistence," said Teitz, the UC Berkeley professor. "They don't just disappear."
But will it ever find its iden-tity?
The real answer lies in future generations, said Kilger, the city manager.
"The question is," he said, "will their children want to stay in Ceres? Will their kids be willing to buy a house down the street from mom and dad?"
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2339. Staff writer Rosalio Ahumada contributed to this report.