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Ripon gives $1.1M back to Uncle Sam
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RIPON — It was a toss-up of what was best for the community and what was best for the downtown merchants Tuesday night as the Ripon City Council voted 3-2 to give back $1.1 million in federal stimulus funds.

Council members were visibly torn in their decision to cut back on their plan to redevelop the final phase of their downtown redevelopment.  They had already tailored the construction time from 26 weeks down to 18 weeks to help the shop keepers retain their customers.

Two-thirds of the project has already been completed, however business owners filled the council chamber saying their customers and cash flow  would be lost with construction interruptions. Patrons would go elsewhere because of the inconvenience, they said.

A string of business owners spoke before the council telling of their fears that they would be forced to lay off employees and possibly having to close their doors in an economic climate that has already reduced their profit margins.

“In this recession the business in the downtown will suffer,” veterinarian Dr. Debbie Daniels told the council.  She said she stands to lose $10,000 to $15,000 when her customers go elsewhere.

The plea was asking to forget the pavers and a turnaround at the end of the block and use redevelopment (RDA) funds to tear out an existing car wash and replace it with a parking lot in addition to upgraded street lighting.

After nearly two hours of hearing testimony for and against the proposal, the downtown community got what it wanted in a motion by Councilman Charlie Gay.

Longtime tire shop owner Larry Swier said he likes Main Street the way it is today. That drew vocal support from those in attendance.   

“The trees are beautiful, and with the pots and flowers,  it’s an awesome main street,” he said.

“I know the downtown belongs to the city, but we work there,” Swier said.  

He added that stimulus monies are really borrowed funds.  It will never be paid back, he said.

“Let’s do the honorable thing – let’s not spend the money we don’t have,” he stressed.  “It’s time to quit spending money we don’t have!”

Several speakers voiced their favor of the project including architect Eric Whole and Dave Collins, both residents of the community.

Collins said he enjoys the character of the community, but noted that he sees vacant store fronts in the downtown today and  wonders what it will take to draw new business back to the center of town.  He said when he moved to Ripon in 1994 he realized the community had been built through sacrifice, saying it would take further sacrifice to get the town to move ahead.

Collins further noted that the composition of a small downtown has changed to that of a shopping center.  Ironically Tuesday night saw the Save Mart Shopping Center given approval to change its designation to be able to accept retail commercial rather than the present highway related status.

Architect Whole said he is in favor of the project because he has seen time and again where small community downtown areas have failed.  “The fastest way to stall business is to do nothing,” he said.

“As unpopular as it is, it may be the best time to do it in the economic downturn – the fiscal impact will be less,” he added.  “It will have to be done sometime, and you won’t find a lower cost.  In the long-term this is best for the city,” he said.

Councilmen said they had been surprised with the objections by the business community after they had gone away happy from a September session that saw a 5-0 vote in favor of the project.

Vice Mayor Red Nutt said he had come to the meeting last night not having his mind made up on the final vote for the project, one way or the other. He said he is not for beauty in a project as much as he is for it being functional.

“Every time we use grant money we have to match it,” he said.  “We are not keeping streets up, but we are going out and building parks that we can’t keep up.”

Councilman Garry Krebbs warned that if nothing is done to further improve the downtown that it is going to be a ghost town.  “It’s a ghost town now.  Nobody is going to rent those empty spots,” he said.

Krebbs said he wasn’t happy with the downtown merchants who reportedly boycotted some of the planning block meetings related to the project.  He added that he didn’t run for council to make individuals happy, but to be concerned for the other 14,000-plus individuals in the community and for their future.

Krebbs warned, “You are going to pay higher taxes whether you send the stimulus money back or not.”

Councilman Charlie Gay added that he understands the frustration with government and the position of government in the matter.

“I want to do what is best for the city.  The drum beat has gotten so loud against us – you need to get things in perspective,” he told the crowd.

Mayor Chuck Winn said that he understands that “construction is a nemesis” to business now or even if it were to be  going gangbusters.

“This is going to happen now or sometime in the future.  By the sheer nature of the economy the cost is down $400,000.  When the economy turns around, the cost of construction is going up,” he said.

The mayor added, “I represent all 15,000 residents and I want to do what is best for everyone.   There are people I know who own property downtown and are in favor of this project because they know it’s going to enhance the community,” he said.

Winn said that he understands and sympathizes with the concern of the downtown merchants, but on the other hand he sees the need to move forward.