Downtown - or more precisely what should the City of Manteca do with downtown if anything - is about to become an issue again.
Every two years during the election cycle downtown’s fate becomes one of the main talking points of City Council candidates. At least for the past 24 years, not one candidate has been against supporting private or public sector investment in the central district. Many have suggested that downtown property and business owners need to decide what direction they want to take while at the same time noting that downtown psychologically belongs to all Manteca residents.
This year’s election cycle brings a different twist. One of the four candidates - Ben Cantu - is working as coordinator for the fledgling Manteca Downtown Business Association. He also spent 36 years at City Hall working as a planner on trying to devise plans for downtown that drew both praise and raised the ire of those with the biggest stakes in the private sector.
The MDBA represents the first time in more than a decade that a group strictly focused on downtown has surfaced to represent the private sector. The city in the past has tried to encourage the implementation of a Downtown Business Improvement District much like Ripon and other cities have to provide a means of downtown devising a plan governing physical improvements as well as a marketing strategy and financing part of it on their own. Each time the effort went to the wayside.
Repeat issues of the last 20 years include:
• The lack and/or quality of off-street parking.
• Traffic flow through downtown ranging from creating a one way east-west street system to the status of bulb-outs used for landscaping to soften the streetscape.
• The absence of city offices downtown that are viewed as a way to create foot traffic.
• The perceived lack of city investment in downtown and conversely the perception that economic investment made by the city elsewhere in developing retail directly hurts downtown.
• Finding way to attract more people downtown with events.
• Addressing problems such as the homeless at Library Pak and other vagrancy related issues that rise from time-to-time.
The loss of the redevelopment agency means the city’s downtown facade improvement program is now dead. A number of businesses had taken advantage of the 10-year forgivable loans that made up to $30,000 available for a variety of facade improvements.
And while there is debate about whether the investments were the best use of money, there have been a number of city-financed projects in downtown. They include the Tidewater-style street lights, replacement of diseased trees, the creation of the American Legion Post plaza and the Maple Avenue plaza, expansion of Library Park with an interactive water play feature included, the mural project partially supported with RDA funds, and the current project that will see a $7 million transit station complete with clock tower rise on land at Moffat and South Main by April.
The last municipal policy document targeting downtown outlined an improvement plan covering 25 city blocks. It was inspired, in part, the 25-member citizens’ panel known as the Vision 2020 Task Force that mapped out an economic and development strategy for Manteca that also focused on cultural and quality of life wants and wishes.
The document made a number of observations about downtown including:
• Library Park, Wilson Park, the original City Hall, and the Post Office are an important concentration of open space and civic uses.
• The “Heart” of Manteca’s downtown at Yosemite and Main is less defined than it should be due to the surface parking lots at two corners.
• There is parking off the alleys but it is disorganized. Alleys are poorly lit and generally uninviting.
• The truck weigh station on South Grant, used car lots and several vacant lots along Moffat represents a “serious” under utilization of a portion of downtown.
• With a large commuter base to the Bay Area, there is a strong need to develop a place such as downtown as the center of public life in the community.
The document outlined design guidelines for downtown Manteca that were never adopted due to either the lack of consensus or lack of interest within the downtown community.
What is likely to surface in the political conversation in the next 78 days leading up to the Nov. 6 election is whether city government is doing enough as well as is the private sector doing enough. That question has framed debates for at least the last 10 election cycles.