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Businesses Hope For Redeveloped Downtown Rebound
With the 2010 Cheese and Wine Expo almost ready to start, City of Riverbank officials are expecting to make a good showing with its recent downtown redevelopment.

"I'm hoping it serves as a lightning rod to attract anchor tenants to bring people to downtown," said Riverbank City Manager Rich Holmer.

Holmer stated that federal stimulus money that was earmarked for road projects was used for repaving, sidewalks, storm drains and also sewer lines. He said the final portion of Third Street from Topeka Street to Highway 108 should be complete in time for the start of the expo.

"The road will be paved, but the amenities of benches, trash cans and planter boxes may not be ready, though," said Holmer who also described the completed project as, "totally attractive."

Downtown parking should also get some relief within the next couple of months with a large off-street parking lot scheduled with the removal of medical portable buildings off Third Street.

Local downtown Riverbank businesses are optimistic that with the streets now open and an upsurge in the economy, the Riverbank Redevelopment Project will pay off for them.

"To hear the words 'street closure' again is like hearing fingernails scraping across a chalkboard," said Karen Bickford, owner of Designs by Karen on Santa Fe Street.

Bickford said that when the construction was occurring it was difficult to do business as usual and she felt potential customers were avoiding her flower shop and gift store because of the inconvenience. Besides the street closures at the time, she also had to deal with occasional utility shut-offs.

"It's nice now not having to look out my window and see a torn up street in front of me," Bickford said. "The challenge currently is to get people to come back down."

Now that the construction is completed, Bickford said she is satisfied with how the area looks. "The plaza is the prettiest part of the project," she said. "It's got potential to be profitable if someone puts time and effort to book events."

Bickford said she expects customers to return to the downtown area, and with a better economy forecast, her business will improve.

Next door, Stuart Landon, owner of Landon's Men's Wear, said that his business was "rocking" prior to the construction. He described the project as an "inconvenience" but also stated that the economy was somewhat better at the time before the streets were closed off.

He said the situation was better now that customers could actually park in front of his business and did not have to park blocks away and walk to his store.

Landon is happy with how the project turned out; saying he no longer had to worry about flooding streets.

"It no longer looks older," he said. "The area now has charm."

The lack of convenient parking during the construction was also an issue for Dennis Zinner of Riverbank Chiropractic on Third Street.

"It was really bad for my handicapped patients that come here on a regular basis," he said. "There was no foot traffic and gave the perception that the area was closed down ... It was really bad toward the last six months of the redevelopment."

Zinner said he feels though the project turned out nice, he did not think much forethought was put into the planning of the plaza area.

"The stage needs to be raised so people can see," he said, "and there is no shade for anyone to sit in if they were watching something being performed."

Despite how the endeavor turned out, Zinner feels there are other problems that the redevelopment project isn't going to fix. He cited the need for building owners to upgrade the structures and the need for more restaurants in the area. He does not anticipate any real new businesses coming to the area until there are "decent" facilities to move in to.

"The project shouldn't have gone one year, 10 months, and 17 days," said Ross Hoskins of Pizza Plus. "But who's counting?"

Though Hoskins isn't sure if the actual time it took was the actual number he gave, he said it was pretty close. Hoskins said he was told the project would take only nine to 10 months and was very disappointed that the construction took nearly two years to complete. He feels the city contractor was given too much latitude and should have been held to a stricter timeline.

Hoskins said that when Santa Fe Street was closed it was a burden to his business.

"Business is now better with the streets open," Hoskins said. "People are more likely to stop with being able to drive by and park."

Now completed, Hoskins feels Santa Fe Street turned out to be everything he thought it would. He now feels it is time for the business community to advertise and promote the area.

"Let the customers know we're all down here for them," he said.

"Redevelopment is more than street beautification," he added. "Property owners also need to contribute and land owners need to develop the area too."

Hoskins feels it would be a good investment for the city to use special funds to lure developers and make incentives for property owners to improve the buildings.

"It was a problem," said Holmer, who sided with business owners stating that two years to complete the project went beyond the timeframe even he thought.

"It got tiresome," he added.

Scott Pettit of Karate For Kids is another business owner who weathered the downtown storm.

"Not having people drive through downtown dramatically affected me," he said. "I didn't have to come in to the place until 3 or 4 p.m. when everything was all closed down."

Pettit does not think the beautification increased his business any more from before it started but added that the area looks better.

"As a business we have to have a reason for people to come downtown," Pettit said. "People don't come to a store or business because the sidewalks are nice. They come for what a store or business offers - quality and service. Let's hope the economy picks up now."

Holmer pointed out the project won the "Award of Achievement" for its downtown redevelopment from the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint Awards Program, where cities from eight Central Valley Counties competed.

"I hope the people who come to the expo can see the progress the city has made," Holmer said.