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The man behind sweet deals

Atherton gains nod for Manteca Hall of Fame

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The man behind sweet deals

Mike Atherton with the original 1916 plaque from the Spreckels Sugar factory.

DENNIS WYATT/The Bulletin


POSTED April 22, 2009 4:00 a.m.
It’s a long way from the jungles of Nicaragua to Spreckels Park in Manteca.

Mike Atherton – the high-profile face of Manteca’s 21st development community – partnered with a friend who was a Peace Corps volunteer back in 1979 working with the poor in that Central America country. People he befriended down there came to him one day in 1979 and warned him the Sandinistas were going to launch a war in a bid to overthrow the government.

“One day the workers came to me and said, Mike there’s going to be a war and we don’t want you to get hurt. You have two weeks to leave,” Atherton recalled in an interview with the Bulletin.

The great-grandson of San Joaquin County’s most influential pioneer Benjamin Holt – the inventor of the Caterpillar tractor that revolutionized farming – had spent five years turning raw land in the impoverished country into productive farmland.

Atherton credits the land development skills he learned while sharpening his ability to work with people to close deals as providing him the ability to develop projects in Manteca and elsewhere.

Atherton is being inducted into the Manteca Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2009  on Saturday, May 23, at the Manteca Senior Center. Also being inducted are Tom & Gayl Wilson, arts; Mike Morenzone, athletics; Roberto Sepulveda, at large; Nick DeGroot, agriculture; Steve DeBrum, community service; Jim Brown, education; and Joel Tokheim, health care.

Tickets are $40 apiece. They are available through the Manteca/Lathrop Boys & Girls Club by calling 239-KIDS.

Responsible for defining projects
Atherton is a partner in several development ventures including AKF Development and Atherton Homes. AKF was responsible for Spreckels Park as well as piecing together the original deals for the lifestyle mall. The three projects have been defining moments in Manteca’s shift away from being a typical bedroom community.

It was Atherton and his partners who stepped forward in what many believe was Manteca’s darkest hour – the closure of Spreckels Sugar. Not only were 255 permanent and seasonal jobs lost, but it was a major psychological blow. Manteca and Spreckels were synonymous have grown up together. The 362-acre site threatened to turn into a cancerous blight at the highest profile interchange in the Northern San Joaquin Valley – the Highway 120 Bypass and Highway 99.

Developer after developer looked at the site and passed. They weren’t willing to take the risk nor were their potential lenders. The fear was that Spreckels Sugar would cost too much to demolish, would cost too much to clean-up if toxic waste was found, and it would be impossible to dispose of the concrete rubble of four 15-story sugar silos and lime piled up from 75 years of the refining process.

Atherton’s partners recalled they thought he was nuts after he was approached by Ron Cheek who served as a consulting engineer for Spreckels Sugar. Atherton not only believed Cheek was on to something but he had an even grander vision.

In the end, all the naysayers were proven wrong when they said a man who only built houses couldn’t make the project work. Even his supporters underestimated Atherton and his partners. They predicted a 20-year build out of the multi-use project at best. It ended up being almost 100 percent complete after just 10 years.

Spreckels Sugar 99% recycled
He did it by also recycling almost 99 percent of what had to be demolished. The crushed concrete from the sugar silos was used as the base for the Highway 99 widening between Ripon and Manteca - a stretch that Atherton likes to call “the sweetest freeway in California.”

Iron and other scrap went to an Oakland recycler. The warehouse bricks were all reused. Even the large lime was worked back into the ground.

Atherton was involved in the Woodward Park deal that gave the city 52 acres for $1 with nothing in exchange. Atherton Homes paid full freight for park development fees years later when they went to build the Woodward Park neighborhoods.

What you see today south of the Highway 120 Bypass has Atherton’s handprint all over it.
Atherton’s great-grandfather Benjamin Holt arrived in Stockton from New Hampshire in 1849.

A wagon wheel maker by trade, Holt figured they’d be a huge demand for his product from the men heading to the gold mines.

Holt was an inventor as well making 35 different agricultural implements in his lifetime. The caterpillar tractor – which distributed the weight of equipment - revolutionized farming and eventually warfare.

Atherton’s grandfather – Warren Atherton – married Holt’s daughter Anne.

Warren Atherton answered the call to duty in World War I as did Holt manufacturing. They literally invented the tank by taking a tractor and mounting a gun on top to end the reliance on trench warfare.

Warren Atherton retired from the war in Europe and became the driving force behind the G.I. Bill that provided millions of returning servicemen the opportunity to access higher education. He also rose to commander of the national American Legion organization.

Delta College named Atherton Auditorium in his honor.

Mike Atherton is a 1967 graduate of Stagg High.

He went to San Jose State University to pursue a degree in political science and ended up running a souvenir shop in South Lake Tahoe virtually on top of Stateline near the Nevada casinos.

Atherton and his partners purchased a coffee plantation in Nicaragua and rebuilt the farm town – including a church and a school – where most of the 75 permanent workers live. The partnership also hires 400 seasonal workers to pick coffee beans.

The plantation yields roughly 250,000 pounds of coffee. All but about 50,000 pounds are sold worldwide by coffee brokers. The rest is shipped to Manteca as part of the Jesus Mountain coffee brand.

They also own two coffee plantations in Hawaii and operate a third coffee plantation on leased land.
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