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Downtown Manteca: 40 years of not connecting
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Looking east on the 300 block of Yosemite Avenue in downtown Manteca. - photo by HIME ROMERO

It seemed like a simple project — directional signs to help visitors find Manteca attractions such as Big League Dreams, downtown and Woodward Park.

The city committed $70,000 in redevelopment agency money to pay for the signs.

All everyone had to agree on were the colors.

Four years later after the Manteca Chamber of Commerce, Manteca Convention & Visitors Bureau and various merchants squabbled over colors — blue and gold versus red white and blue — a compromise seemed in reach and then the state pulled the plug on RDA funding.

In a nutshell, that explains the downtown problem for the past 40 years. It has been near impossible to get everyone involved — the merchants, the property owners, the community and the city — to agree on a strategy, embrace it even if it wasn’t 100 percent what various parties wanted and stick with it.

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Manteca hasn’t even officially defined downtown

Actually, there isn’t even an agreement on the official boundaries of downtown.

“It has never been decided,” noted City Manager Karen McLaughlin of what constitutes downtown Manteca. “There was a lot of effort put in a few years ago but nothing was decided.”

Some view downtown as defined by a defunct parking district consisting of six blocks. Others view downtown as Powers Avenue to the east, the train tracks to the south and west and North Street to the north. And some thought it should go as far east as Cottage Avenue and as far north as Alameda Street.

There also was discussion whether the area — once defined — should be known as downtown Manteca or something more inclusive such as central Manteca.

McLaughlin said the city has been working with various downtown folks to address issues such as dumpsters being allowed to overflow. The city is also getting ready to repair parking lots and address potholes in alleys in 2015.

McLaughlin said the city is more than willing to work with property owners and businesses.

“We are a property owner downtown too,” McLaughlin noted of the city. “All three parties have to work together.”

But first she said it is important that the private sector determine what exactly they want to see happen before a three-prong partnership can work.

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One voice needs to come from downtown

In other words, downtown needs to bring one voice to 1001 West Center Street so municipal staff and elected leaders can act to help move things forward

To that end, the Manteca Chamber of Commerce is stepping up with a Downtown Revitalization Summit on Oct. 16. It is by invitation-only and is billed a gathering of key stakeholders who share a common interest in strengthening Manteca’s downtown.

Many other successful downtowns that have reshaped themselves after generalized retail fled to larger stores on the outskirts of cities have in place Property Business Improvement Districts married with specific municipal rules. The rules treat the area differently to accommodate restaurants, boutique shopping and things such as parking requirements that are different than what is typically required for new businesses in 2014. More often than not a set of rules are established specifically on what type of business are not allowed in such districts. That could include smoke shops, tattoo parlors and such.

“It’s not that the city would not allow such businesses as they are allowed elsewhere in the city,” McLaughlin said.

What it does is set the foundation for businesses key to downtown revitalization to be attracted such as restaurants, specialty stories and entertainment venues.

It would also take into account downtown’s physical limitations.

But the critical thing is picking one strategy and everybody sticking with it.

McLaughlin pointed to traffic as one example. Over the years it has been the biggest sticking point and has prompted proposals at least twice to convert Center Street and Yosemite Avenue into one-way streets.

The city responded to concerns about too much traffic going through downtown too fast by slowing it down with lane restrictions on Main Street. Then merchants said traffic was too congested so the city switched to three travel lanes and eliminated parking. Then the city was told people weren’t lingering enough to look in store windows and notice offerings. That’s when the city switched back to less lanes and the current configuration.

In one form or another there have been at least four extensive studies done on what downtown should do over the last 40 years that have all ended up going nowhere except for one — the Vision 2020 study.

The city as a result of that late 1990s community-based undertaking has invested over $12 million in the downtown district.

It includes the new transit center and community room, Tidewater-style street lights and traffic signals along with street furnishings such as benches, expanding and remodeling Library Park as a de facto downtown plaza complete with restrooms and a water play feature, financial support for the Manteca Mural Society endeavors, created two mini-plazas — one on Maple Avenue and the other in front of the American Legion Hall, and provided low-cost loan and grants for store facade improvements. 

Roger Brooks, a destination guru brought to Manteca on a $9,000 PG&E grant in 2007 in a bid to jumpstart efforts to move Manteca forward as a player for “staycation” recreation spending for sports and other activities, noted the city had done a lot and it was time for the property owners and businesses to do their share.

That is what the chamber gathering on Oct. 18 intends to address.