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Manteca needs to avoid turf wars downtown

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POSTED November 12, 2009 3:28 a.m.

You’ll find the future of downtown thriving in the shell of a ghost.

There was a time not too long ago when the El Rey Theatre was the cultural heart of Manteca. The 900-seat grand dame opened in 1937 offering movies and live entertainment. The house that the Peters family built served as a big regional draw attracting customers from Ripon, Lathrop, and Escalon.

You could argue that downtown started slipping about the time modern-day movie houses started popping up and retail started growing on Manteca’s outer fringes. The fire that gutted the El Rey on Aug. 6, 1975 after the screening of “The Towering Inferno” prevented the grand dame from dying a slow death. Instead the end came quickly as did downtown’s status as a cultural center for Manteca.

Ten years ago, a private sector visionary – Joe Kelley – saw potential in the burned out shell that city leaders once wanted to condemn and tear down in 1990 for $500,000. The $2.1 million deal – a combination of investors and bank loans - was short $220,000. There were those downtown as well as on the City Council who howled that it was a waste of redevelopment funds and that a large restaurant and brewery would never work.

Why? Well, it didn’t fit into the 1970s view of the world when Proposition 13 was born and before suburbia started taking off at warp speed.

Kelley Brothers Brewery & Brickyard Oven Restaurant is the future of downtown. It follows in the vision Petula Clark sang about in her ode to downtowns as the place “you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.”

Downtown Manteca’s future is as a destination for entertainment, dining, cultural events, and unique shopping. It is a winning formula that is working to revive downtowns all around from Modesto and Stockton to Pleasanton.

Vinnie Bhan also has a full grasp of downtown’s future with his $1 million investment that upgraded and added to a tired old building at Lincoln and Yosemite and transformed it into the inviting complex that houses the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory store, the Ironhorse sidewalk deli, and a unique uniform shop.

Both have hours – much like you’ll find at Manteca Bedquarters – to cater to the Manteca lifestyle of 2009. Both also dovetail well into the downtown streetscape that helped upgrade downtown’s slightly rundown image into one that has a somewhat inviting appeal with its late 19th century-style street lights, decorative pavers, benches and the landscaping touches that some like to vilify as what is killing downtown.

Quite the contrary. It’s the lack of vision killing downtown. And every time someone tries to work toward forming a vision feuding starts that makes the Hatfields and McCoys seem like rank amateurs.

Yes, the city has made mistakes. Past pavers were less than perfect and there were other missteps as well. Those casting loose pavers from days gone-by at municipal leaders and city staff aren’t without blame. By continuing harping on one thing – this time around it is the bulbs, in the past it was the pavers – they literally suck the will out of people to move forward.

Manteca can’t afford not to do something with the heart of the city. It is also important to remember downtown belongs to all of Manteca.

What Manteca needs to do is revive the Vision 2020 Task Force but have it focus exclusively on central Manteca all the way up North Main Street to at least Alameda  and on Yosemite west to Walnut and east to Powers. Forget the old parking improvement district and historic downtown as the boundaries. It is too limiting for a town that’s on the verge of being a city of 120,000.

That task force – representing people from throughout the city as well as those in the central district – should address what businesses they do and don’t want to see and have the council exclude those through zoning that are considered a detriment while allowing non-conforming uses to be grandfathered.

They need to come up with a plan that encourages residential conversions to restaurants complete with outdoor dining, incentives for the private sector to buy adjoining properties and replace them with multi-use structures with retail on the ground and residential on the top, as well as relax rules that discourage private sector investment.

A prime example is Bhan’s project. Had the city stuck with its parking rules, the project never would have gotten off the ground. Common sense prevailed and look what it got Manteca.

If the City Council opts to keep a limited definition of downtown’s physical boundaries they will guarantee failure. They must widen what Manteca embraces as the central district – or downtown – to have an area large enough that will encourage private sector investment.

If not, the same old turf wars will continue to hang heavy as an Albatross around the proverbial neck of downtown.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, e-mail dwyatt@mantecabulleitn.com

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