A Partnership for Downtown’s Future
When you think of Downtown Modesto, what comes to mind?
Do you picture of a safe, beautiful, inviting place? Can you see yourself strolling the sidewalks to enjoy world-class cuisine, arts, and entertainment? Are you overwhelmed by the constant development of new businesses, upscale shopping, and condominiums?
Unfortunately, for years, it’s been hard to see any of those things in Downtown Modesto.
“Like many cities on the west coast, Modesto has seen its share of urban neglect and decay,” said Josh Bridegroom, the City of Modesto’s downtown planning manager.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Why can’t now be the time to restore Downtown Modesto, to turn it into the heart of the city and the center of our Modesto’s social, business, and residential scenes?
That’s the sort of question the new Downtown Modesto Partnership is asking. This partnership, comprised of nearly 50 stakeholders from a wide range of businesses, nonprofits, and governments, hopes to turn downtown into the place where people want to be.
It’s an ambitious goal. Many downtown buildings are in disrepair. So called “low-value” businesses occupy what was once prime real estate.
But the time could be right for this partnership. A new trend termed “reverse flight” is seeing young professionals and empty nesters move back into revitalized city centers.
Of course, Downtown Modesto is already much, much better than it used to be. The City of Modesto utilized redevelopment funds — a funding mechanism that allowed cities to borrow against future property tax revenues — to produce a great many improvements. Thank redevelopment for Centre Plaza, Tenth Street Place, and the Gallo Center for the Arts.
But when the economy crashed and California nearly went bankrupt, the state did away with redevelopment funding. Now, without redevelopment, downtown Modesto is on its own. And the only way to get through that is by banding together.
“In the end, downtown is the civic center of the community, and we all want to see it prosper,” Bridegroom said.
In the past, a wide range of different organizations each took on their own particular goals. Some specialized on the arts scene, while others focused on parking. Some built nightclubs, while others considered security.
But these disparate groups never worked hand-in-hand. Their fragmentation limited what they were capable of achieving.
The new Downtown Modesto Partnership brings together representatives from all sectors. Churches, marketing organizations, playhouses, government, property owners, businesses, and more are all involved in the partnership.
“This is the first time there’s been a group that is really focused on the entire downtown,” explained Ryan Swehla, a member of the partnership.
Participants are split into four different “Teams,” focused on key goals: Economic Development, Promotions, Operations, and Urban Design. Those teams report to a single, diverse board.
With so many passionate, dedicated members, ideas aren’t in short supply. But without redevelopment, money is.
That’s why the partnership is making a big push to convince all downtown property owners to band together and form a Community Benefit District.
“It’s a process to create a long-term source of funds for improving the downtown,” Swehla said.
This district would allow property owners to assess themselves, pooling funds to improve downtown Modesto. Those funds could be used to improve safety, clean up graffiti, or conduct beautification projects.
“It’s a way for property owners to help improve the common area of downtown,” Swehla explained.
But first, property owners have to approve the district’s creation. Already, 35 percent of property owners have signed a petition to start the process.
An official ballot has been sent out to downtown property owners. Should the majority of property owners support it, the Community Benefit District will go into effect.
These districts have been extremely successful across the region, Swehla said. He points to downtown Turlock, which established an assessment district about six years ago.
“Back when essentially no one was going to downtown Turlock,” Swehla said. “In those six years, it’s become hub of activity.”
Stockton’s Miracle Mile has an assessment district, and it now has a higher occupancy rate than anywhere else in the city. Since Downtown Tracy started a Community Benefit District five years ago, occupancy and rental rates have surged 25 percent.
“The demand for downtowns increases significantly,” Swehla said.
Of course, the partnership does much, much more. They’re working with the city to create a series of incentives, inspiring businesses and residential developers to come to town. Another program would make it easier to improve the facades of downtown buildings. Other members are working to improve parking, or design public art.
In short, the 100 percent volunteer-driven partnership is working to make downtown Modesto a better place, in every way. And they’ve already had some successes.
A partnership sponsored clean-up program empowers business or property owners to become “block captains” and take charge of keeping their sidewalks tidy. The captain in charge of the cleanest block gets a gift certificate every month.
But for these partnership members, it’s not about the gift certificate. Like everything they do, it’s just about turning downtown Modesto into the gem they know it can be.
Downtown Modesto Partnership’s Vision
• Downtown Modesto is a safe, inviting and beautiful place that inspires a powerful sense of community pride
• Downtown Modesto is a vibrant destination for community connection, with world-class cuisine, arts and entertainment – indisputably the place to be
• Downtown Modesto is bursting with business growth and new development; the place for shopping, upscale urban living and innovative enterprise
By Alex Cantatore