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From sleepy town to a burgeoning city
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The City of Lathrop reached a milestone in 2009. San Joaquin County’s youngest incorporated city officially turned 20.

The somewhat subdued and scaled-back celebration to mark its two-decade history reflected the grim economic tone of the day. It was the height of The Great Recession, and the city was collectively reeling from the string of foreclosures that practically plunged some of the upscale residential neighborhoods in Mossdale into something akin to a ghost town. There was hardly a block that did not have a “for sale” sign in front of a foreclosed home, with some of those blocks having two or three of those signs standing on brown lawns.

For its 20th birthday celebration, the city returned to Manuel Valverde Community Park in the Historic Old Town district sans the pyrotechnic display that always attracted the big crowds. That move had to do with the logistics of policing a crowd of 10,000 revelers – the number that showed up for the previous year’s celebration held at the newly opened Mossdale Community Park – and the high cost that such an event would entail which was estimated at nearly $76,000. That figure was considered by city leaders as prohibitive in light of the budget crisis looming over the city that was looking at an annual deficit of $2.5 million for the next five years. Even with the absence of the fireworks display and the significantly reduced attendance, the pared-down birthday celebration was still a resounding success as far as the residents were concerned.

The return to Valverde Park was also significant historically speaking.The celebrating community was returning to its roots that go way back to the years prior to the July 1, 1989 incorporation that changed Lathrop’s designation from a simple, quiet small town into a city with lots of socio-cultural, political and economic potential.

The economic potential was already showing itself in some of the day’s industrial and economic developments. These included the already fast growing Crossroads Industrial Park at South Harlan Road which is known today as Crossroads Commerce Center; the equally thriving California Natural Products, founded by Manteca’s own native son Pat Mitchell, which has proven itself to be a major force in the global market; and residential developments on both sides of Cambridge Drive south of Lathrop Road, just to name a few. While Lathrop’s population was only just above 5,000 during the years prior to incorporation, it had two of the biggest employers in San Joaquin County – the then-Sharpe Army Depot owned by the federal government, and the Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Plant which has since become the Pilkington Glass Company with significantly smaller number of workers. Also fueling the town’s economic base at the time was the J.R. Simplot fertilizer company on Howland Road which was to lease one of its buildings to serve as the new city’s interim city hall. Many Lathrop old-timers will remember J.R. Simplot as Occidental Chemical and Best Fertilizer, the names of the other companies that were there at one time.

The years before the incorporation campaign also saw the introduction of a unique housing program in Lathrop that was based on homeowners’ sweat equity working in tandem with government subsidies. Those three-bedroom, two-bath houses with two-car garages, are well blended in with newer houses standing today in the central part of Cambridge Drive between Lathrop Road and Louise Avenue. They are hardly distinguishable next to the houses in the Phillips subdivision built by the late John Phillips around the same time. The neighborhood commercial center on the northeast corner of Louise Avenue and Cambridge Drive was part of the residential subdivision developed by Phillips.

The alluvial lands west of Interstate 5 stretching from the historic Mossdale Bridge to the area just north of Klo Road where the city limits to the north end today was still tumbleweeds territory when a determined hard-core troop of incorporation advocates started marching on pavements to secure the needed petition signatures. Mossdale was still largely agrarian country with most of the lands around City Hall today being farmed by the man who was to become the city’s first town mayor who also holds the record today of having the longest tenure in office (from 1989 to 2002) which includes a record five terms in office including two uncontested elections.

The first five years of incorporation involved the struggle of gradually weaning the newborn city from the county. The next five years set the foundation for the growth that was to come, primarily to the areas west of the freeway including the most ambitious project of all – River Islands at Lathrop which was responsible for the geographic growth – 10 square miles – which doubled the town’s original land size. With the later addition of the Central Lathrop Specific Plan Area where Lathrop’s first high school stands today, the town with a river that runs through it, encompasses 22 square miles.