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Downtown Business Incentives Workshop
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Bringing some new businesses and excitement to downtown Riverbank was the topic at a recent city council meeting where business incentives programs were brainstormed. VIRGINIA STILL/THE NEWS

Discussions about downtown Riverbank took center stage once again at the regular city council meeting at the end of September. City Manager Sean Scully initiated the workshop that evening and requested the City Council’s direction and feedback on the possibilities of a downtown business incentive program. Staff is currently drafting a variety of pilot programs targeting businesses to the downtown area that will be presented to the council at a future meeting.

“This can take many different forms, so we are going to provide a number of different options and then Council will choose a couple of concepts (that are) most attractive to them,” added Scully. “I’ll be chatting with current downtown businesses, residents, chamber of commerce, and other interested parties to get feedback and suggestions on business incentive ideas.”

Riverbank’s downtown is a quaint area with fountains and trees that once thrived and in past years has been a topic of revitalization in hopes for new businesses to complement the ones currently there.

“It is a really common issue especially in Central Valley communities so not just here about what do we do about downtown,” stated Scully at the meeting. “The question that people ask time and time again is why it isn’t like it was in 1972 and how come things are not as vibrant as they once were when downtown was the commercial core and center of the community and there are a lot of reasons for that.”

A few of those reasons, Scully explained, were that small shops compete with ecommerce like Amazon and big box stores like Walmart and Target. Although there is a push back by communities to shop and buy local and to support the smaller businesses even if the prices are a bit higher. So the question returns once again on how to combat the changing times and create a downtown that can once again thrive.

“The council has had a lot of discussions about this many different times and during strategic planning this year one of the things that was brought up was let’s have a discussion about what we can do in a more targeted effort to attract specific kinds of businesses to the downtown,” expressed Scully. “We think that would be additive to the experience what other things we can do to make this downtown that we have, which is very nice by anyone’s standards, a little bit more vibrant and there’s a lot of different opinions about that.”

The city currently has some waiver and deferrals of some development standards for business use and some future goals of a mural program and electronic signage.

Some of the suggestions for business incentives Scully explained were having a façade remodel program, a program designed to target specific types of commercial business, permit fee reduction, business license fee reduction, and small business loan programs.

There were several different ideas given by each councilmember during the discussion and Mayor Richard O’Brien began the commentary adding that the city needs to streamline the license and permitting process.

“There are a lot of online items or tools that we can employ but the thing that we need to do is build a ‘yes’ attitude in this community,” said O’Brien. “We need to direct you on how to open it and lower the barriers to make sure they can get them accomplished a lot faster than some of the things that we have done in the past. Develop a path to opening their business even if it is an interim process.”

The problems some of the current businesses have are absentee landlords, O’Brien explained, and the improvements that the buildings need.

Leanne Jones Cruz mentioned that she would like to see a sign with all the current businesses on it as well as more advertisement for them.

Cindy Fosi expressed that she would like to see a substation for Kaiser downtown as well as nice restaurants, cafés, and craft type shops.

Darlene Barber Martinez added that she also would like to see a restaurant downtown that perhaps had outside seating.

“We have the cheese company and maybe they could partner with a craft beer company,” said Martinez. “If we could offer some type of demolition assistance and enterprise zones and what our areas considered an opportunity zone and with the CDBG grants maybe the developers can provide matching funds.”

“I have spoken to several other downtowns around the area like Lodi,” stated Cal Campbell. “It sat empty for five years until a winery came in and started wine tasting and that was the stimulus that started bringing business in. The masonic lodge could be a big restaurant but we need to not only have these small businesses but the core businesses that draw people downtown.”

The overall discussion was positive and united as to promoting new and old business in downtown Riverbank. City staff is hopeful to bring this topic back to the city council in November with a variety of programs for review.

“The bottom line is that the council seemed to acknowledge that some action with regard to business incentive is necessary if actual change is going to happen,” expressed Scully. “Riverbank’s downtown has many things to be very proud of, the discussion is what can we do to take it to the next level and make sure that there are few if any vacancies in the commercial areas.”