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Revitalizing downtown Los Banos

Downtown Los Banos is in the midst of a renaissance. The southwest Merced County city has been working for the past five years to not only bring a fresh look to the downtown core, but also spur new development and draw in the thousands of visitors who drive through town every day on Highway 152 on their way from the Valley to the Central Coast.

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The downtown revitalization started with a city-hosted workshop in December 2017, according to Los Banos Director of Community and Economic Development Stacy Souza. The city invited former Turlock Chamber of Commerce director and the driving force behind the Downtown Turlock Revitalization effort in the early 2000s, Sharon Silva, to give a presentation to stakeholders on what would be needed to launch their own revitalization plan.

“That planted the seed,” said Souza. “…She was able to take a look through the weathered paint and the broken bricks and modge podge of stuff downtown and really look past that and say, ‘hey, you guys have some opportunity here. You have good bones; your downtown has some good, strong components. You have some buildings here that just need some attention and you need the right kind of tenants and you’re going to have the ability to revitalize.’

“When she explained that to the property owners, they started to get excited because somebody was actually telling them some positive information when for so many years they had been told downtown doesn’t have anything, it’s a snooze fest, it’s not safe, it’s this and that and all the negatives. Sharon really brought to light all the opportunity.”

With a motivated group of property owners, merchants and City staff, along with the expertise of Silva, the Los Banos downtown effort took off. Even with the unplanned setbacks that the pandemic brought, the City passed a Los Banos Downtown public-private partnership agreement, which is a special benefit assessment district designed to raise funds within a specific geographic area.

With a dedicated Downtown Association and a source of funding, the transformation has begun.

The Downtown Association launched a beautification project that has seen the planting of trees, giant pots of flowers and the design of a gateway sign that will soon span Main Street where it meets Highway 152, welcoming visitors to explore the downtown area.

The City is also now working on a Downtown Master Plan to solidify the overall vision for the downtown area in future developments.

“This is all helping us revitalize our downtown and it really starts with having that seed and really that interest and vision. Then it starts to snowball and it creates synergy and then plans start coming together. It really took some attention to downtown to get this all moving and it’s finally moving,” said Souza.

That movement has already drawn new investors, including current Downtown Association Chair David Sousa.

Two years ago Sousa, who has real estate and restaurant businesses in the Valley, purchased the historic Crest Theatre in downtown Los Banos. The renovation of the theatre, which originally opened in 1949, is underway. Sousa plans to open a sports bar and grill in the building, with an event space open for rentals.

“To me, I’ve always liked the downtown in Los Banos and thought it was prime for the location and size of it,” said Sousa. “We’ve already affected a lot of change, new trees, planter boxes, a new arch sign to welcome visitors to the downtown…and now just got approved to draw up a downtown master plan.”

Sousa said he is already seeing property owners take pride in ownership that is needed to see growth, that and the partnership with the City.

“It takes people putting in big, big investments to bring about change,” he said.

Those investments will not only benefit the downtown area, but the entire city as well.

“We’re doing all the basics to build everything to make it special,” said Silva. “…We want to people to keep the tax dollars local because people don’t understand that downtowns are revenue engines. They’re little moneymakers. The taxation that comes in helps the city and we need to get that across to them. It’s helping existing businesses and developing new business. And it’s bringing the revenue into a community.”

Along with the business development, the Downtown Association is working on bringing the community back to downtown. The association is working with the City’s art commission and identifying historic buildings. The Downtown Association also celebrated the end of pandemic restrictions last summer with a giant Fourth of July event.

The Independence Day event featured a carnival, live music, a beer garden, food trucks and fireworks.

“That exposure to downtown and the amount of people that it brought, not just locally, but regionally, to Los Banos exposed who we are. It was amazing,” said Souza, who credits Silva for “whipping together” such a successful event in limited time due to uncertain COVID restrictions.

“Coming out of COVID, Sharon said ‘We need to do something big. We need to get people to come downtown and we really need to think big. Let’s throw a party.’”

Los Banos plans to welcome locals and visitors alike once again to its downtown to celebrate the Fourth of July. For more information on future activities, visit Los Banos Downtown Association on Facebook.