BY KRISTINA HACKER
Many know Los Banos either as the Merced County town located between two popular wildlife refuges or as the last Valley stop along Highway 152 on the way to Monterey. But there’s more to Los Banos than just what lies along its highways. The city is undergoing a revitalization of its downtown area and is hoping to draw both residents and passersby to the heart of historic Los Banos.
“We just had our Merced County Spring Fair…a huge parade downtown and I realized that there are people who come downtown for that parade who have never come downtown before. Their lifestyle doesn’t dictate that they come downtown unless it’s for an event like a parade. If we can just get downtown Los Banos up and running with entertainment, activities, then we can promote it and get more people downtown,” said Gene Lieb, publisher of the Los Banos Enterprise and the driving force behind the most recent downtown revitalization effort.
“We need to step up our game, make it look better and bring more people downtown.”
When Lieb came to Los Banos in 2001 to head up its community newspaper, he saw the unrealized potential of the downtown area and tried to garner support for a revitalization effort — but to no avail.
Lieb’s efforts weren’t the first.
Los Banos Downtown Association Board Chair Thomas Kaljian remembers when the City of Los Banos hired a firm to do a downtown area study in the 1960s.
“It was a nice study, but we didn’t get anywhere,” he said.
Decades later, the City put together a group of people who looked at the downtown area. A few regulations and some new benches and streetlights came of that effort, but not much else.
It wasn’t until 2017, when Lieb decided to call in expert assistance from Sharon Silva, who spearheaded the campaign to revitalize Turlock’s downtown area in the late 1990s and early 2000s as part of the Turlock Downtown Association, that true progress started being made on the project.
Under a newly motivated Los Banos Downtown Association Board of Directors, Silva got to work rallying support for the downtown revitalization and soon after local developer Greg Hostetler pledged $1 million in matching funds to support the project.
Those funds have already been put to good use as part of the Downtown Façade Program, with nine businesses taking advantage of the matching funds to improve their buildings.
This private funding is very important following the dismantling of redevelopment agencies by the state in 2011. Prior to 2011, many public projects were funded through RDAs.
“This project, there is no RDA. Everything, everything to this point, that has been happening was through private funding,” said Silva.
However, one-time monetary gifts won’t be enough to sustain the downtown revitalization efforts. Silva proposed that Los Banos create a Property and Business Improvement District (PBID) — a special benefit district where services are financed by a self-imposed tax on property.
Since September 2018, the City of Los Banos has been actively working with the downtown association and in April 2019, the City Council voted to move forward on putting together a PBID.
“The City sees it as a partnership. It’s been tried many times, either the City by itself or the property owners by themselves. I think this is the first time that we’ve had a partnership. I see as a three-sided partnership, like a stool with three legs. We have the private property owners, we have the downtown association, which is an organization that represents the downtown property owners and merchants, and we have the City. With that partnership, I think we’re just really in a position right now — the timing is perfect — for us to be able to put this together,” said Los Banos Community & Economic Development Director Stacy Souza Elms.
Souza Elms said that since Silva has joined the downtown association’s efforts, there is a new energy for the project.
“Folks are believing in the revitalization. You can see it now because the Façade Improvement Program is happening and you can see buildings being fixed up,” she said.
A vote is expected on the PBID sometime in July. A majority vote is needed by the downtown property owners — with votes weighted by ownership of downtown square footage — for the special district to go through. If approved, the funds collected through the PBID will pay for a downtown executive director, as well as security, lighting and graffiti abatement.
“Even without the redevelopment funding, I think that this has sort of unfolded the way that it’s needed to in the since that it’s been a real grassroots movement. It’s required neighbors to get to know neighbors and go out and talk to other people and get them on board and get them excited about revitalizing downtown Los Banos,” said Los Banos Downtown Association Board member Taylor Wolfsen.
Longtime Sixth (Main) Street business owner Penny Glick said that she’s looking forward to making progress on the downtown revitalization project.
“Thousands of people drive by (on Highway 152) every day. How do we get them to come downtown?” commented Glick.
She would like to see more eateries come downtown and even a few new gift shops like her own The Country Duck to entice shoppers to stay downtown.
Larry Hernandez, who represents the Los Banos Odd Fellows Lodge that owns the large building at 928 Sixth St., is also excited about the possibilities the revitalization could bring to downtown.
“The downtown needs a lot of help… It’s a gem and it needs to really shine,” he said.
Silva and the downtown association plan to continue working towards their ultimate goal of a downtown area that is once again truly the heart of the community.
“Some of us have proscribed to a bigger picture where if you’re not investing in downtown then what’s happening to downtown?” said Wolfsen.
“My theory is never one person builds anything, it’s always a team,” said Silva.
“It’s been a real privilege for me to have this opportunity, and at this time…It always takes somebody to step forward and then it takes your team of people who are going to back that and that’s exactly what’s happened here in Los Banos.”