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Manteca’s big myth of a dying downtown district

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POSTED July 21, 2010 1:21 a.m.
One of the political givens is that downtown is dying and that it is on the verge of turning into blight hell and will strip Manteca of its cultural and moral soul so therefore the city needs to pump in truckloads of money to save it from becoming Fort Apache as in the South Bronx.

Please.

It is still alive almost 20 years after Wal-Mart supposedly was going to deliver a death blow.

We are in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and there is a list of businesses that are not just hanging in there but beating some of the chain competition at their own game such as Manteca Bedquarters, American Furniture,  and Century Furniture to name a few.

Look at the last decade downtown. There has been money and new businesses open ranging from Kelley Brothers raising up from the burned-out shell of the El Rey to the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and accompanying Ironhorse Deli and makeover of the adjoining building.

People don’t invest money into commercial corpses.

Yes, a lot of downtown businesses have failed over the years. Is that somehow the fault of the city? Those still there are either because they deliver what customers want and are competitive in price or offer superior service. More than a few have failed over the years because those opening businesses often have had barely enough to cover first and last month’s space rent plus get a working inventory in place. It takes a special breed to be in businesses as well as to grasp that it may take you a year or so before you really start making it pay off.

That is not the failing of city government. Instead it is called undercapitalization.

Should the city just ignore downtown? No. But elected leaders should come up with a plan - as Ben Cantu has astutely pointed out - and stick with it instead of letting detractors continually derail things that are launched. In that aspect, Mayor Willie Weatherford was correct a few years back when he said those with a direct stake in downtown need to come to agreement on something and stand by it before the city gets in too deep or the city should simply back off unless, of course, it enjoys being abused.

All of the candidates - even those who may think the best thing to do for the city is to stay out of “the business of business” except to address common infrastructure - all have valid points.

However, there are some myths to strike down.

Will locating City Hall downtown creating a base of potential customers to help stores and restaurants thrive? With all due respect, most of the people who go to City Hall are either there to prevent their water from being turned off or have waited until the last day to pay their bills. That’s not the demographic that is going to go for a leisurely lunch after taking care of business at the city or even do much more than window shop.

As for the employee base actually working at city hall, it is shrinking. It would be nice, for example, if someone bothered to survey those workers left at city hall to find out how many go out for lunch or simply bring their own. Arguing that spending $20 million plus or so to locate city hall in a specific location to generate private sector business cries  out to make sure it is really justifiable.

Council candidate Richard Behling makes a solid point when he notes city hall could be anywhere. There is also “the opportunity cost” of devoting the equivalent of a block or two of what should be prime downtown space as the city grows toward 100,000 residents to public office use when it might one day be ideally situated for a larger-scale-than-normal private sector investment in downtown.

Manteca also has something going for it that other downtowns in the valley don’t. It is within a mile in all four directions of other shopping districts.

In other words, it isn’t off the beaten path. People can still access it with ease even on foot.

It is true that some events such as the Pumpkin Fair draw well over 30,000 people a weekend. So why isn’t that translating to more people going downtown throughout the year?

Here’s the shocker: It isn’t because the trees aren’t big enough, there aren’t more fancy light poles or the fact there isn’t a gathering place like Library Park with scheduled activities such as a farmers market.

There isn’t simply anything to bring many people downtown to shop or be entertained. That isn’t a slap against downtown as obviously a lot of people do trade there.

But it is funny in almost every conversation to “jump start” private sector investment people downtown often will point to the need for a place like a Barnes & Nobles or even a Starbucks.

Wouldn’t that be the exact opposite of what a downtown would need to grow stronger? Downtown needs to offer something different and unique. Some of the merchants and other concerns downtown already get that. It’s just that the economy isn’t exactly going full blazes right now.

Downtown is not on its death bed.

The sooner everyone started acting accordingly, the sooner sanity - and perspective - will return to the debate over downtown’s future.
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