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Manteca makes major expansion of park system on Houxs watch
Retired Parks and Recreation Director Steve Houx watches his grandson Michael Houx go down a slide at Woodward Park. - photo by HIME ROMERO
The kids’ squealing was sweet music to Steve Houx’s years.

It was late Friday morning and dozens of preschool kids were swarming over the playground equipment at Woodward Park.

Houx couldn’t help but smile.

Houx – more than anyone else – realizes the value of the 52 acres around him.

“I don’t think you’ll find another park this size in San Joaquin County except for Micke Grove’s Park,” Houx said.

Houx this month ended a 22 year career with the City of Manteca including 15 years as the director of Parks and Recreation.

During his time at the helm of parks and recreation Manteca has added:

•The 52-acre Woodward Park complete with lighted soccer fields – a rarity among Northern California cities.

•The 30-acre Big League sports complex that in itself is unusual but also offers another rarity – a municipally owned indoor soccer arena.

•The 3.4-mile Tidewater Bikeway – that doubles as a greenbelt – as well as the growing number of extensions including Wellington Avenue, Del Webb at Woodbridge and Industrial Park Drive-Van Ryn Road.

•Lighted soccer fields at Northgate Park.

•Soccer field and BMX track at the Spreckels Recreation Park.

•The first phase of the Library Park expansion and renovation that includes an interactive water feature.

•Establishment of upgraded street landscaping along corridors in new developments along with the initial landscape maintenance districts.

•Shifting new neighborhood park upkeep costs away from the general fund to landscape maintenance districts.

•The regional tennis center in front of the Manteca Golf Course was established.

•The construction of the skate park.

•The creation of the largest roundabout around in a newer neighborhood near Woodward Park that is essentially a one-acre park with a picnic area.

•The city entered into partnerships with the Manteca Unified School District for community gyms at the Golden West, Shasta, Neil Hafley, and Stella Brockman campuses.

•Expansion of neighborhood parks from 18 to almost 50.

Of all the added park and recreation facilities, Houx believes the most significant may be the abundance of neighborhood parks in the city.

Elected leaders established the goal of a park within a half mile walking distance of every home in the city.

“In a lot of cases the farthest distance to parks is even less than that,” Houx said.

Houx praised the City Council over the years with taking a progressive and conservative approach at the same time. It is what he said led to the council’s decision to have storm retention basins double as parks in a bid to reduce costs. The end result has been a proliferation of neighborhood parks that are now completed by developers as part of development agreements.

Most cities that require storm retention basins simply fence them off.

He noted that the city was able to take advantage of growth to get facilities it otherwise wouldn’t have obtained.

“It was sometimes a 3-2 council but they got the things in place,” Houx said.

Park acreage triples
in just 15 years
Manteca’s park expansion in the last 15 years has gone from just over 100 acres of parks to in excess of 350 acres. Community parks have gone from the 15-acre Northgate Park and the smaller Lincoln Park to almost 140 acres including the 30-acre Big League Dream sports complex and the 52-acre Woodward Park.

Woodward Park was site sold to the city for a dollar by a development group led by Mike Atherton. The city essentially started development of Woodward Park almost at the same time BLD finally started moving forward. The end result was 112 new acres of recreational improvements within a few years.

Houx would like to see the city continue developing Woodward Park including a shade for the picnic area, additional restrooms and concessions near the west side for use by soccer groups, tennis courts, the dog park, and the 1,000-seat amphitheatre the 10-acre storm retention basin.

“It’s pretty tough to have picnics out here in the heat without shade,” Houx said noting the cost is a reasonable $200,000.

Houx notes that most people understand the quality of life issues that parks help address but few grasp the economic impact.

He pointed to the 122-acre golf course as an example.

“If you run the numbers like you do with Big League Dreams you’d realize it generates money for the city,” Houx said, pointing out 60 percent of the rounds played on weekends are by non-residents.

The BLD sports complex generates $460,000 annually in lease payments and concession fees for the general fund. It also brings in motel room tax plus money spent in restaurants and stores from those participating in tournaments booked every weekend of the year.

“We looked at BLD numbers elsewhere and given our location we knew it would work,” Houx said.

The long process to get BLD built going through three sites and redesigns provided Manteca with a six-field baseball compels, two restaurants, and an indoor soccer arena.

Houx also noted you can’t overvalue the extensive street landscaping in Manteca that has happened over the past 15 years and is paid for through landscape maintenance districts.

“People’s attitudes are affected by their environment,” Houx said, adding that even if you don’t use a park the fact they provide open space is a good thing in terms of quality of life.

Houx secured a bachelor of arts in environmental design and a major in landscape architectural at Cal Polly Ponoma. He worked for the city from 1979 to 1980 and the started his own landscape design business before being lured back to the city by former parks and recreation director Curly Boyd.

Houx said he believes the city has an excellent staff to deal with growth and to weather economic uncertainties. He said the city was lucky to get people like Mark Hall – who heads up the park project design – and Bruce Mulder who oversees recreation programs. For now, Assistant City Manager Karen McLaughlin will oversee parks and recreation in a move to cut municipal costs due to the impending deficit.