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Battles in 1980s shape Manteca’s city growth

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POSTED May 25, 2013 2:18 a.m.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth of a six-part series taking a look back at Manteca’s first 95 years as an incorporated city. Voters approved incorporation on May 28, 1918.


The Recall.

The 3.9 Percent Growth Cap.

Bay Area Transplants.

Yellow Freight.

The 1980s was the era of major issues in Manteca where clashes became proper nouns due to the intensity of the debates.

It started with a bitter recall of three council members who terminated a popular longtime police chief in 1983 and ended with political graffiti as messages “BATS go home” were scrawled on an underpass and makeshift signs popped up along roadsides.

It wasn’t a pleasant time as Manteca started completing a painful transition from Central Valley farm town to “bedroom community.”

The dismissal of Police Chief Leonard Taylor for personnel reasons triggered a firestorm of backlash. In the end, Manteca’s first woman mayor and first-directly elected mayor Trena Kelley who had ridden strong popular vote into office, was recalled along with Bob Davis and Rick Wentworth.

The fallout from the recall continued unabated in Manteca politics for almost a decade.

The rapid growth caused by Bay Area workers squeezed out of the housing market west of the Altamont Pass sent growth soaring in Manteca. Entire subdivisions such as Mayors Park on the southwest corner of Louise Avenue and Union Road went up literally in a matter of months. Growth was in the double digits.

The result was a showdown between pro-growth forces and anti-growth forces, many of whom blamed Manteca’s woes on newcomers from west of the Altamont that they dubbed “Bay Area Transplants” or BATS for short.

The “blame the BATS” crowd was small but vocal.

It was from the battleground over Manteca’s future that the compromise 3.9 percent growth cap tied to sewer allocations was adopted in 1985. Some wanted rates a slow as one percent and others wanted a rate approaching 10 percent.

But after the explosive growth of the early 1980s, the pace slackened. The 3.9 percent cap was finally reached for the first time in 2000 as home building surpassed 650 units.

The 3.9 percent growth cap set the stage for a series of planning decisions that included going south of the Highway 120 Bypass to annex additional land.

The fight over Yellow Freight virtually flipped the community around 180 degrees. Pro-growth people were arguing the decision to locate a Yellow Freight terminal near the southeast corner of the Main Street and Highway 120 interchange was bad planning. Many who had worked relentlessly toward slowing down growth were strident backers of the project.

The council tried to steer Yellow Freight to the Airport Way industrial corridor. Yellow Freight said no, dropped Manteca and headed for Tracy.

As a result, “Yellow Freight” became part of the political vernacular and was used whenever someone wanted to argue Manteca’s leaders were chasing away other jobs.

Growth reached a crescendo in 1989. Many resale homes were selling within days of going on the market. Offers on homes were made on the hood of agent’s vehicles just seconds after a prospective buyer first saw the home even though they never had inspected the inside of listings.

Housing prices soared nearly $20,000 in less than 30 months as the median prices of resale homes shot through the roof to a record-high $135,000.

Manteca was flying high. The euphoria ended with a jolt. More precisely it started a downward plunge in early October of 1989 when the Loma Prieta Earthquake laid waste to a large chunk of the Bay Area, cracked foundations and patios in Manteca and sloshed water out of swimming pools throughout the Family City.

By the time the final days of 1989 were nearing, Manteca and the rest of Northern California had started a downward plunge into what was then considered the roughest economic downturn since the Depression.

Ten thousand people were on hand to witness the 1998 event that historians will probably look back on as when the seeds were planted for the dawn of the 21st century in Manteca.

For over three decades, the four 15-story silos identified Manteca to millions of travelers on Highway 99 and Highway 120.

Spreckels Sugar and Manteca literally grew up together with the decision by the German-born sugar magnate Claus Spreckels deciding to locate a sugar refinery in Manteca coinciding with the city’s incorporation in 1917.

It came as a surprise on January 9, 1996 when Spreckels Sugar told its 220 employees at Manteca the firm was selling its sugar operations to Holly Sugar. The close proximity of the more modern Holly Sugar plant in Tracy and its location away from urban encroachment was the death knell for Spreckels Sugar’s Manteca plant.

Manteca civic leaders promised to work to prevent the shuttered factory from becoming blighted.

They didn’t have to wait for long. The development firm of Atherton-Kirk came along, bought the property and unveiled plans for a 362-acre industrial, business, commercial and residential project known as Spreckels Park.

The last Manteca disaster of the 20th century struck in at the recession. The floods of January 1997 started with a gurgling sound on a levee on the Stanislaus River just a half mile east of the confluence with the San Joaquin River.

Within three weeks, 11 levee breaks on the two rivers flooded 70 square miles, damaged 800 homes, caused $80 million in damage and forced the evacuation of 5,000 people between Manteca and Tracy.

At the peak of the floods, emergency crews plugged the underpasses of McKinley Avenue at the Highway 120 Bypass and Louise Avenue on Interstate 5 with dirt to convert the major freeways into emergency levees.

The levees held and the floodwaters started retracting although the hardest hit area - Weatherbee Lake - was underwater for three months. It was here where Flo the Cow gave Manteca its 15 seconds of fame as CNN beamed to the word footage of the cow atop a roof surrounded by water.

The 1990s also saw Manteca’s downtown start the transformation from a traditional retail center to a central district whose strength lies in specialty shops, services and “destinations” such as dining.

The opening of Wal-Mart and the balance of the Mission Ridge Shopping Center in 1992 accelerated the decline of downtown as Manteca’s traditional retail stronghold. Actually, the decline started in the 1970s with the building of a shopping center at Yosemite Avenue and Union Road. The drain continued as more and more big boxes and shopping malls were built in surrounding communities. The opening Wal-Mart and Mervyn’s actually helped Manteca start reversing the so-called “retail bleed” of sales tax critical to pay for municipal services that was flowing to nearby cities where Manteca esidents were forced to shop due to limited local selections.

Ironically, as the century drew to a close the very thing that gave Manteca life in the early days of the 1900s -train service - was poised to open new horizons in the 21st century.

The Altamont Commuter Express passenger rail service started rolling in 1998 out of the Lathrop-Manteca station building an even firmer bond between Manteca and the job-rich Silicon Valley and Pleasanton-Livermore communities west of the Altamont Pass.

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