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A woman and her dog walk through downtown Antioch as a group walks along the railroad tracks by the Riverview Lodge and the water in Antioch, Calif., on Friday, March 14, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

ANTIOCH -- This city's downtown is often characterized as a diamond in the rough. But bringing back the sparkle Rivertown once enjoyed has been elusive.

Now, with Antioch's financial outlook improving and a new city manager with a track record of energizing dormant downtowns, civic leaders are again looking to revamp the historic area.

Antioch recently applied for a $493,000 state grant to prepare a comprehensive, long-term specific plan for downtown. Also, city officials and civic groups are dusting off plans that were put on hold years ago, including a study created by international development company Arcadis in 2006 before it bowed out.

"From what I see, downtown really only needs a little boost to be a vibrant place where people come to shop, dine or just hang around," City Manager Steve Duran said. "There is a there here."

"We're trying to come together to see what we want downtown to be going forward," Sean Wright, CEO of the Antioch Chamber of Commerce, said. "Instead of spending more money, we're looking to utilize the template we have and find a consensus." Antioch's downtown was the hub for clothiers, grocery stores, theaters, drugstores and restaurants for the industrial city's first century of existence. But as factories started closing in the 1960s, residents began moving south of Highway 4.

Downtown languished as retailers followed the residents and located in shopping centers.

"It was once a vibrant area, and it can be that type of gem again," said Kerry Motts, a lifelong resident and member of the Rivertown Preservation community group. "There is a lot of potential."

The number of occupied storefronts along main drags Second and G streets ebbs and flows. About a dozen storefronts during a recent count had "For Rent" signs.

James Brunell and three longtime friends, all from Antioch, opened the unique clothing store VII Boutique on Second Street last July; fellow native Wayne Thompson moved his barber shop from Pittsburg half a block away.

"If you look, some of the businesses have spruced up. And the new businesses are drawing people downtown," said Jim Lanter, an insurance agent with State Farm. "Things appear to be on an upswing."

Lanter relocated back downtown in August. He hopes to create an ad flier with about eight of the businesses in the area.

Popular downtown eatery Rick's on Second reopened earlier this month under new ownership. It had been closed for three months after being in business for 28 years.

But, other than nights where the opulent El Campanil Theatre is illuminated for performances, the streets are largely empty after 6 p.m.

"It's just lacking life down here," Brunell said. "To be able to bring something in would be huge."

Duran mentioned just having a Peet's or Starbucks overlooking the river would be a start. Thompson agreed, adding that a grocery store or minimart would be a great addition.

A city program that helps incentivize tenant improvements, such as a fresh coat of paint or new awnings, would draw people, Thompson said.

Though past revitalization efforts have failed, the constant recipe suggested over the years has been that Antioch must add high-density housing in the area, which would support shops and restaurants and keep downtown bustling.

The city's grant application with the state's Strategic Growth Council also looks at the economic and environmental opportunities that could come by creating a transit-oriented community that connects a future ferry terminal with an under-construction eBART station a couple of miles away. A river walk and more access to the water could also be created.

Duran said Antioch has the same attributes as downtown Livermore, Pleasanton and Pleasant Hill, which have breathed life into once-dormant downtowns.

"But they don't have the San Joaquin River," Duran said.

Antioch's short-term plans include having developers take tours through downtown and give input on what they think is viable, Duran said.

If Antioch receives the grant, community meetings will be held to discuss shaping Rivertown, city officials said.

In the meantime, some people are already brainstorming ideas for downtown. The preservation group wants to build a large park on the empty dirt lot between Second and Third streets off E Street, which could work for such events as farmers markets and the annual Delta Blues Festival.

Lanter suggested closing off a piece of Second Street to create a walking area that would be conducive to having kiosks with river views.

Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.

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