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Fiddling over Maple Avenue while downtown burns

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POSTED December 20, 2010 2:10 a.m.

It’s time to lay all of the cards on the table.

There are really two different issues when it comes to downtown – traffic and trying to get people to patronize businesses there.

Unfortunately Round VI of the Maple Avenue debate – and every clash over traffic patterns from the first proposal to put in one-way streets on Center and Yosemite back in the 1970s to the landscaping bulbs that some compare to anti-tank devices on Main Street – has been waged by vested interests acting as if both issues are intertwined as one. They are not.

The ultimate traffic flow and parking solution – if there is such a thing – that caters to the specific location of every business downtown won’t bring customers into the door if there is nothing to draw them there. At the same time, if there is a reason people want to go downtown to shop and/or for entertainment Manteca slipping into traffic hell won’t stop them from doing so.

There is also a need to be brutally honest. While Manteca’s downtown can – and should – be better, it isn’t doing all that bad given the economy.

Yes, there are vacancies and struggling businesses. But if you look around you will find that everywhere in Manteca and elsewhere. It’s called economic reality and the ever changing marketplace that is driven by shifting consumer tastes, wants, and desires.

You got it. Downtown’s long-term problems aren’t going to be resolved by flipping the direction of traffic on Maple Avenue or making it a two-way street again.

There needs to be a reason to get people who already aren’t going there to shop or dine to do so. Making traffic northbound instead of southbound on one block isn’t going to get one more person to shop downtown.

With all due respect, the people who are complaining about it are still shopping there. What everyone should be trying to focus on are the people who aren’t complaining about it – although they may still think it is a nuisance - and aren’t shopping downtown.

The biggest downtown attraction is the post office. Up until I moved three years ago and tried to get a postal box downtown and couldn’t, I’ve been using the annex on Industrial Park Drive.

My stops at downtown businesses and eating establishments dropped perhaps 80 percent.

But getting more people to go to the post office downtown isn’t the answer either. Consumers are changing. There are plenty of long-time Manteca residents who live near downtown who take care of their postal needs at the annex because it is a lot more convenient. Then there are postal convenience centers in retail stores plus the Postal Service’s own efforts to get people to go on-line and get their needs taken care of through the mail.

The Postal Office isn’t an attraction to put all of your eggs in one basket for given how things are shifting. That said, if the Post Office were to leave its Maple Avenue location downtown would be in worse shape.

I’ve spent money at downtown concerns – businesses between Fremont and the railroad tracks and Alameda and Moffat – an average of once every two weeks during the past year. I rarely shop out of town anymore unless it is at a specialty shop or for an item I can’t get at a Manteca store.

I am willing to drop more coin at a specialty shop for something I want but it is doubtful – for the time being – that Manteca and the general marketing area would sport a Fleet Feet-style business or a shop that specializes in road racing bicycles.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t specialty shops out there that would work.

Having said that, the one thing that people are willing to spend money on even in a recession is dining out and entertainment. (Yes, that has dropped off as well but there is still a lot of money spent for dining and entertainment and it will pick up as the economy does.)

Movies aside, it is a market segment that downtown could target aggressively and do so with the benefit of that foot traffic – people spending money in their leisure time and not running to and from the post office – easily spilling over into specialty stores.

The best nearby examples are downtown Modesto which has a teeming nightlife, downtown Lodi, downtown Pleasanton, and downtown Livermore.

Create reasons for people to go downtown – farmers markets, mini-concerts, and such – that do not require full street closures. Do it at times that are attractive whether it is weekday evenings or Sunday afternoons. And when you do that hopefully stores will be open.

Also, it is time to admit that downtown looks one heck of a lot better today than it did 12 years ago and that is thanks to both private sector effort and millions spent by the Manteca Redevelopment Agency.

People will go downtown, will endure traffic messes, and will walk more than half a block if you give them a reason to do so. If you doubt that consider the Pumpkin Fair, Crossroads Street Fair and farmers market. All three close streets and disrupt traffic patterns. All three require people to walk a ways.

The best thing that could happen to downtown is for everyone involved to say enough is enough.

Instead of continuing to argue over traffic they need to insist that efforts be concentrated on making downtown work.

Again if traffic flowed smoothly by putting in traffic signals in synch at every intersection including the two on each end of the 100 block of North Maple it will only accomplish one thing - improved traffic flow.

It won’t do a dang thing for the business climate downtown.

Fiddling over Maple Avenue while the real issue is making downtown viable to attract discretionary consumer dollars is a Nero approach if there ever was one.

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