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Dim and tattered buildings dot much of the 2-mile stretch of busy highway in the Sonoma Valley known as The Springs. The unincorporated community has long been seen as the ugly stepsister of Sonoma, a city just a mile to the south.

The Springs is perking up, though.

Restaurants, salons and shops are getting makeovers, replacing doors and windows, fixing parking lots and adding signs and fresh coats of paint after landing loans from Sonoma County. Meanwhile, the county will soon kick-start the second phase of a sidewalk- and road-improvement project expected to boost pedestrian safety and beautify the Highway 12 corridor that includes Agua Caliente, El Verano, Fetters Hot Springs and Boyes Hot Springs.

“Now, we’re Cinderella,” said Janie Raymond, owner of Plain Jane’s Consignments.

She recently was awarded a facade-improvement loan from the county. It’ll go toward paying for storefront signs and adding pops of color to the building she shares with the ice cream shop, La Michoacana, on the south section of the busy traffic and pedestrian corridor. The county put in sidewalks, lighting and bike lanes in 2010 as part of the first phase of the road-improvement project.

Together, she said, Plain Jane’s Consignment and La Michoacana will receive about $20,000 to pay for the façade work, which is being handled by Sebastopol artist and designer Rico Martin.

Business owners said the roadwork and commercial rehabilitation loan program will continue to make the area more inviting, encouraging motorists to stop by their locales instead of driving straight to the more attractive and flush Sonoma.

“We want to make it more inviting so people do stop and take advantage of the ice cream shops, hair salons and little cafes,” said Fred Bengs, construction services supervisor with the county Community Development Commission, which oversees the loan program.

Businesses can receive up to $15,000 for facade improvements, and the loan can be forgiven if the owner maintains the building and doesn’t sell it within five years, Bengs said. The program also offers up to $50,000 for larger renovations. It gives a business up to 20 years to pay back the loan, and part of that loan may be forgiven.

Gina Cuclis, who for 25 years has lived in The Springs, said residents were the driving force behind the revitalization. Cuclis said she and other residents formed in 1992 the Verano Springs Association, where she served as president, to push for sidewalks, lighting and other improvement after years of “neglect” from the county.

“We had blight. We had poor infrastructure,” said Cuclis, who now sits on the county Board of Education.

“It was a desire to want a more functioning and attractive community,” she said.

The loan program previously was run under the county’s redevelopment agency and paid for improvements at various restaurants in The Springs, including El Molino Central and E-Saan Thai House. When Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators did away with redevelopment agencies, Bengs said, they turned to county supervisors for money. The board approved $1 million for the program last July.

All of the money has been awarded, said Charles Dollwet, a project specialist with the Community Development Commission. He has several businesses on a waiting list.

Dollwet said there currently are 30 projects underway throughout the county. About half of them are for businesses in The Springs — and half of those are being handled by Martin.

“The owners pick the designers . . . Our involvement is to help the owners reach their vision by providing the funds,” Dolwett said.

In addition to the Plain Jane’s and La Michoacana building, which Martin plans to paint a bright orange, he is working with an auto repair shop, taqueria, two markets and a pair of salons. Designs for one of the beauty salons, for example, included a large metal cutout of a hand covered in henna patterns.

Martin said he also turned to papel picado, colorful Mexican paper cutout banners traditionally used at parties, for inspiration in some of his work.

“I’m not creating a little Mexico, but I am using inspiration from the community, which is mostly Latino,” he said on a recent afternoon while painting the Tienda Y Panaderia Iniguez in the heart of Boyes Hot Springs.

He had painted the once dim, peach-colored market exterior a festive sunflower yellow with accents in white and seafoam green. Martin also added a large, colorful mural of a cornucopia on one end of the store.

He said he chose “eye-popping” colors to draw the attention of the more than 30,000 motorists who travel the roadway daily. Martin added he wanted to turn the area back into a destination, as it had been many decades ago.

“They’ll be asking ‘where am I’ (and) pull the car over and start engaging with the community,” he said of drivers. He’s doing a video documentary on his work there and launched a website, wONEder.org, to encourage others nationwide to bring more color to blighted communities.

“It’s developing a character for the business and also bringing up the economy of the entire region,” said Martin, who previously had designed night clubs and did branding work for HBO and the Discovery Channel.

But not everyone is tickled pink about his choice in colors and designs in The Springs.

Cuclis said several residents have complained to her about the bright colors. They don’t fit with the history of the area and “the elegance” that residents want, she said.

“Nobody is against color. It’s about how you do it,” she said.

Cuclis added, “It doesn’t need to scream to be seen.”

Nonetheless, Armando Saavedra said his customers have been pleased with the changes so far at his auto repair shop, now painted bright orange. He’s waiting for a new sign.

Saavedra, who has owned Armando’s Auto Center for five years, said the new look also is attracting new customers, particularly women.

“The women love the color,” he said. “It’s more festive.”

Although it’s not a color palette he plans to pick for the Barking Dog Cafe, owner Peter Hodgson said it’s exciting to see all the revitalization underway in the neighborhood, which historically was seen as one of the county’s toughest areas.

“The whole neighborhood has improved. It’s stepping up,” he said.

The facade and road improvements lend credibility to the community, added Hodgson, who was awarded a $50,000 loan to retrofit the interior and exterior of his building. He plans to put in a new awning and install large commercial windows that’ll draw in more light.

“It’s significant assistance for us,” he said. “We’ve been wanting to do this (work) for a long time.”

The renovations, coupled with the street and sidewalk improvements, will help improve the visibility of his cafe and neighboring businesses. He occasionally has musicians play in the evenings and on weekends.

“It adds a certain level of excitement,” Hodgson said.

The road improvements that include lane widening, ornamental lighting, sidewalks and bike lanes from Boyes Boulevard to Agua Caliente Road should kick off in April, said Tom O’Kane, deputy director for the Sonoma County Transportation and Public Works. It should cost $5 million to $6 million dollars.

While it will “dress up” the corridor, O’Kane said it’s primary focus is traffic and pedestrian safety. “You’ll be amazed. It’s one of the most heavily traveled pedestrian corridors in the county,” he said.

It’ll create an inconvenience for many drivers and businesses. However, it’s been a long-waited project, said Susan Gorin, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

“It’s has been decades in the planning,” she said. “People recognize how important it is for the entire community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.