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Tango lessons for the city & downtown

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POSTED April 10, 2017 1:11 a.m.

It takes two to tango. The same is true when it comes to picking up the pace in downtown Manteca. And it requires the private sector and city to follow the same music.
And if you want proof that dance partnerships work visit arguably the five best examples of downtown renaissances in communities of similar size within an hour of Manteca — Pleasanton, Livermore, Tracy, Lodi, and Turlock.
All five are unique but they all have a number of things in common: You’d be hard-pressed to find weeds, dumpsters that are overflowing, garbage such as clothes left for the homeless strewn about, missing street trees, dingy sidewalks, or blighted buildings.
All five places are also have a liberal sprinkling of dining options with Pleasanton by far being the most impressive and thus most crowded downtown. They also all have events and promotions staged to get people downtown not just once a week during a farmers market but for concerts, once-a-month midweek “street parties” and such in the evening, and they all have brew pubs.
All also have downtown websites with Pleasanton by far being the best. While its design is tops, its content is extremely thorough. There is even a page where the Pleasanton Downtown Association lists available downtown commercial property with basic details and contact information for the landlord or seller. Many of the empty buildings in down Manteca don’t even have signs saying they are for rent let alone who to contact.
So what does Manteca need to do to get its downtown to join the dance?
First, and foremost, everyone needs to understand this is not just another commercial district. Each of the five communities see their downtowns as cultural centers and gathering places. Turlock has the Carnegie Center. Tracy has the Grand Theatre. Lodi has the Hutchins Street Square. Livermore has the Bankhead Theatre. Pleasanton has Lions Wayside Park.
Manteca has the expanded Library Park with Gazebo Stage and adjoining library yet save for weekly summer farmers’ market events and street fairs not much synergy to help downtown has come of it. Manteca also has the Transit Center with a plaza that is vastly underused.
It is clear in all five communities that the city, merchants, and property owners “police” those that aren’t on the same page and take steps to uphold their end of the bargain. While that could mean not following an adopted plan, in Manteca’s case a world of difference could be made if the City of Manteca simply stepped up its property rules enforcement running the gamut from building issues to clamping down on trash and garbage bins.
This may surprise you but the other cities have homeless issues including Tracy and Turlock.
But they aren’t as prevalent as in sections of downtown Manteca. Part of it has been the city’s hands off attitude for years when it comes to exercising the “nuclear option” of pursuing condemnation proceedings against troublesome properties. They are reluctant to do so for two false reasons. One is that it is too expensive. But given the problems such buildings create for downtown it is more expensive not to do anything. And the second is that property rights are sacred. That’s fine but all rights aren’t absolute. If they were the City Council would be powerless to stop the owners of 108 Sycamore Avenue from converting the fire damaged boarding house into a nuclear dump. The analogy, by the way, fits for what the burned out building is now doing — and will do — to downtown Manteca.
Too much debate over the years has been spent on coming up with a plan. Here is what should be done: 
u The city maintain areas it is directly responsible for and deploy code enforcement to force all property owners to adhere to maintenance and upkeep rules.
uTo make that happen, tap into the Economy Revitalization Fund that is replenished each year with $700,000 plus in property taxes and use $100,000 to hire and support a code enforcement officer dedicated first and foremost to the downtown district and then to other issues around town once the central district has been addressed. It’s the property version of the community resource officer position to tackle homeless issues.
uThe responsible downtown property owners and business concerns need to band together by either taking their relationship with the chamber a step further or creating their own association that could — if need be —  operate as a part of the chamber until such time there is enough momentum for it to be freestanding. It is a route other communities have used. The group would be concerned about standards and such but more importantly they would work on getting vacant buildings filled and staging events and promotions. Given how much downtown means to a lot of people, they likely could harness volunteer manpower to help. It is what the Pleasanton Downtown Association does.
uEstablish a downtown Manteca website.
uAdopt workable rules for sidewalk dining. Al fresco dining options is what all the other five cities have in common. We’re not talking about a few chairs and tables set out front. This includes using decorative wrought iron fencing to create a protected area where tables, chairs, flower urns, and even umbrellas could go. A potential restaurant shouldn’t have to ask for a variance or develop standards for the city to consider. They need to be in place to make it clear Manteca welcomes the creation of true outside dining experiences.
uDust off the downtown plan done 20 years ago that gave us the Tidewater streetscape motif and go from there changing it as needed.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209.249.3519.

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