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Downtown Dilemma Businesses Seek Financial Help
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Claiming downtown redevelopment together with the poor economy is bringing their businesses to the verge of collapse, a number of merchants have asked the Riverbank City Council and Redevelopment Agency to pay their rents or provide other financial relief for a period of six months.

Twenty-three businesspeople signed the petition presented at the last Agency meeting and several spoke from the floor on a subject that City Manager Rich Holmer promised will be on the agenda at the Dec. 8 Riverbank City Council meeting.

The merchants presented a letter to the Agency saying the tearing up of the roads is ruining their businesses and suggested the city pay six months worth of their rents, which average $700 per month per business, for a total of about $100,000.

"We will look at that and other options but it would have to come from the general fund and I don't think we have that kind of money," Holmer said. "I sympathize with them and I too would like to see the project finished as fast as possible."

There is also the problem of "gift of public funds," he added. And how far would the city extend financial subsidies? What about the businesses located along Atchison Street (Highway 108) in addition to those on Santa Fe and Third streets?

Speakers from the floor at the Nov. 24 Agency meeting included florist Karen Bickford of Designs by Karen and German Chavez of the Antigua Event Center, both located on Santa Fe Street, and chiropractor Dr. Dennis Zinner and Kenny Auyeung representing Fair Deal Market on Third Street.

"We all need financial help to get us through the next few months and the next phase of construction downtown," said their letter. "We all feel that, after construction is finished, we will be on our way to a viable downtown. But right now, businesses that survive off of foot traffic are in serious trouble. We have already endured a prolonged Phase I construction and to imagine surviving Phase II is a stretch..."

Reconstruction of infrastructure such as water, sewer and storm drainage pipes under Phase I and now streetscape under Phase II has been under way on Santa Fe and Third streets for over a year and involved tearing up the street pavement and more recently the sidewalks also.

"This is the second year in which the street has been closed to traffic during the holidays," said Bickford in an interview. "This project has taken over a year. It's still not done. It will probably take another six months. They are asking us to hang on a little longer. But the streets are closed. There is little or no walk-in business. This is strangling our businesses."

As to questions on what area the rent subsidy would cover, the city already has forgiven the rent owed it by the Del Rio Restaurant on two occasions to the tune of about $25,000 in one year, Bickford noted.

The city has hired a real estate expert to look at the struggling or empty businesses downtown with a view to helping them relocate but that person is not due to start work until December and more stores are quitting every day.

The Queen Bean on Santa Fe Street recently closed with the owner retreating to her first and more successful coffee shop in Modesto. A Santa Fe Street boutique for children's clothes called Tish Tosh and another for women's garments named Pamela Clare's have moved to Oakdale.

"Riverbank businesses are being affected financially by the construction downtown. It's been two months now and it's taking too long," said Chavez, noting that while his property is at the edge of the current work, the nearby construction signs, noise, dust and poor access are deterring his customers from doing business with him. Construction work does not make a scenic background for events like wedding receptions and parties, he said.

Once the contractor has finished reconstruction on Santa Fe Street, he is due to move to Third Street and businesses like Fair Deal Market will be affected.

"It's taking far longer than we expected. The businesses on Third are hurting badly and they will come down this way next," said Kenny Auyeung of Fair Deal, located at Third and Stanislaus Street.

The first phase of construction left Third Street unfinished with ridges and bumps in the roadway, which are a hazard to people on foot, he said. He has seen elderly people among his customers stumble and almost lose their balance on the uneven pavement while getting in and out of the vehicles.

The businesses that have and will be affected by reconstruction, according to the merchants letter, include Landon's Clothes, Serendipity Day Spa, Ulloa's Barbershop, Red Carpet Lounge, Curves, Riverbank Dentistry, Pizza Plus, Designs by Karen, R &S Tavares, Santa Fe Partner Queen Bean, Pamela Clare, Meyer's Shoe Repair & Saddlery, Garcia's Bar, Rico's Wireless, Antigua Event Center, Paul's Video, Riverbank Graphics, Creative Beauty Salon, Riverbank Chiropractic, Barbara's Beauty Salon, Martha's Bridal, Fair Deal Market, Garcia's Market and Valadez Jewelers.