NEWMAN -- What, in June, could excite people about a public Christmas tree lighting more than six months away?
The idea that this year, for the first time, Newman's holiday revelers could gather around a decorated permanent tree. Not chopped off at the trunk, but actually growing in soil in the city's long-dreamed-of, soon-to-become-real downtown plaza.
A crowd recently gathered on austere blacktop at the usual tree-lighting spot, to celebrate the start of the transformation. City workers had dumped a load of dirt on a large tarp, giving shovel-wielding dignitaries something to dig into for a ceremonial ground-breaking.
"We WILL have a Christmas tree lighting ceremony this year!" proclaimed City Manager Michael Holland, drawing the afternoon's most spirited cheers.
Soon, the barren parking lot will give way to tree-shaded colored pavers, seating walls, an entry arch and a raised, circular pergola where bands could play as people mingle.
It's meant to attract attention from drivers on Highway 33, a backbone connecting towns on the West Side of Stanislaus County. Too many fly by, not realizing that just one block away lies a walkable Main Street, with brick-lined sidewalks, decorative street lamps and friendly merchants in tidy shops.
"This will be a gateway to our downtown, a beautiful window to Newman," said Vicki Lucas, a Chamber of Commerce official whose husband owns a real estate business. She envisions rummage sales to benefit Boy and Girl Scouts, farmers markets and other community events in the plaza.
Vacant lot not so attractive
The historic West Side Theatre, a vibrant focus of Main Street's Americana, is easily seen across the open lot from Highway 33. But few eyes are now drawn that direction by the hardscrabble blacktop -- a condition leaders hope to change.
The hope was born in 1994, when the late Jim Silveira, a downtown-minded mayor, and others brainstormed on pumping life into the city core. Streetscape renovations including walkways, benches and street lamps came in 2001, followed by construction documents for the plaza a couple of years ago.
The recession has proved to be a curse and blessing. Facing their own crisis, state legislators recently raided the bank accounts of all redevelopment agencies, swiping $400,000 that Newman was counting on for the plaza. But Stanislaus County leaders agreed to replace that with a loan from an economic development pool.
Stimulus money helped
Newman also took prime advantage of federal stimulus money, aimed at jump-starting recovery, landing a series of grants totaling $2.1 million. And competition among work-starved contractors two weeks ago produced a winning bid of $1.95 million from Perma-Green Hydroseeding -- $655,000 less than the city's engineer first predicted.
"The timing was right," Public Works Director Garner Reynolds said.
The company is based in Gilroy and will employ subcontractors from Modesto, Oakdale and Merced, according to documents.
Wednesday's crowd ate hamburgers grilled in the shadow of the 107-year-old St. George Hotel, near large sidewalk containers sprouting colorful blooms. About 100 volunteers had gathered a few weeks ago to plant flowers up and down Main Street.
"You call for volunteers and usually they show up," said Kathy Ponce de Leon, who has no regrets after moving here 50 years ago from Southern California. "There is such wonderful community spirit -- it's just fantastic," she said.
Lorna Sloan was raised in Newman and left for 35 years before responding to the pull of her hometown. "You can't take 10 steps downtown without having a conversation with someone you know," she said.
As for the plaza, "I respond to things that are orderly and well-kept," she said.
Ceremony speakers reassured merchants that lessons were learned during streetscape construction in 2001, which robbed parking spots downtown for months on end. A few shop owners said they'll be patient.
"You can keep things the way they are and get lost in the shuffle, or improve things and make the business climate better," said Bob Novoa, a former councilman whose jewelry store is next to the West Side Theatre, across from the plaza site. He fought to install an antique-looking town clock mounted on a street pole at the plaza entrance and keeps it ticking.
In a few months, people with cameras may capture in the same frame the clock and Christmas tree, a tree that won't die within a few weeks.
"We're so looking forward to the tree lighting," Lucas said.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.