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Manteca tries to shake bedroom status
The rubble at the base of the four 15-story concrete sugar silos frames the old Spreckels Sugar sign in July of 1997. - photo by Bulletin file photo by Rose Albano Risso
Editor’s note: The following is part of a series recapping Manteca history as 2010 draws to a close.

Ten thousand people were on hand to witness the event that historians will probably look back on as when the seeds were planted for the dawn of the 21st century in Manteca.

For over three decades, the four 15-story silos identified Manteca to millions of travelers on Highway 99 and Highway 120.

Spreckels Sugar and Manteca literally grew up together with the decision by the German-born sugar magnate Claus Spreckels deciding to locate a sugar refinery in Manteca coinciding with the city’s incorporation in 1917.

The once almighty Spreckels Sugar empire that helped build San Francisco, the Hawaiian economy, the port of San Diego and Manteca ceased to exist in 1997. The sugar company was diversified into other products such as elevators and had moved its corporate headquarters from the Bay Area to North Carolina. Sugar prices were dropping.

But still, it came as a surprise on January 9, 1996 when Spreckels Sugar told its 220 employees at Manteca the firm was selling its sugar operations to Holly Sugar. The close proximity of the more modern Holly Sugar plant in Tracy and its location away from urban encroachment was the death knell for Spreckels Sugar’s Manteca plant.

Manteca civic leaders promised to work to prevent the shuttered factory from becoming blighted.

They didn’t have to wait for long. The development firm of Atherton-Kirk came along, bought the property and unveiled plans for a 362-acre industrial, business, commercial and residential project known as Spreckels Park.

The demolition of the silos in July of 1997 drew 10,000 people, TV stations from up and down the Central Valley and prompted the California Highway Patrol to close the nearby highways. It took just one push of a button and Manteca’s most imposing landmark went tumbling down.

As the decade drew to a close, the 177-home Curran Grove named after an early plant superintendent was almost 40 percent completed. Food-4-Less was a few weeks away from opening in the 9.4-acre Spreckels Marketplace.

Frito-Lay marked the first-year anniversary of its distribution center in 1999. Work was almost done on a 267,000-square-foot spec building owned by Hunsaker of Orange County. Castellus -a major San Francisco real estate development firm - submitted plans for a 550,000-square-foot food repackaging plant and plans to build an addition 1.5 million square feet.

Home Depot inked a deal to start building a home improvement center in 2000. Chevron was building a gas station and chains such as Staples, International House of Pancakes and Applebee’s are contemplating locating in Spreckels Park.

Altogether, Spreckels Park could yield as many as 2,000 jobs when it reaches build out or almost 20 times the number of full-time jobs lost when Spreckels Sugar closed.

Spreckels’ closure came in the middle of a prolonged recession. Housing prices - the ultimate barometer - peaked with a resale median value of $135,000 in 1990 and descended downward until hitting bottom at $125,000 in 1996. Prices stayed in the trough until 1998 when the Bay Area boom and a rebounding Northern San Joaquin Valley economy brought the median price up to $138,500 at the decade’s end.

The final year of the 1990s also marked a building boom. Nearly 600 housing permits were yanked in 1999 compared to the 190 to 250 that were issued annually in previous years.

Commercial and industrial construction also was picking up with Dirksen Freight, Sunnyvalley Meats and Food-4-Less on the list.

Decade’s worst disaster strikes in January 1997
The decade’s worst disaster also struck in the middle of the recession. The floods of January 1997 started with a gurgling sound on a levee on the Stanislaus River just a half mile east of the confluence with the San Joaquin River.

Within three weeks, 11 levee breaks on the two rivers flooded 70 square miles, damaged 800 homes, caused $80 million in damage and forced the evacuation of 5,000 people between Manteca and Tracy.

At the peak of the floods, emergency crews plugged the underpasses of McKinley Avenue at the Highway 120 Bypass and Louise Avenue on Interstate 5 with dirt to convert the major freeways into emergency levees.

The levees held and the floodwaters started retracting although the hardest hit area - Weatherbee Lake - was underwater for three months. It was here where Flo the Cow gave Manteca its 15 seconds of fame as CNN beamed to the word footage of the cow atop a roof surrounded by water.

The 1990s also saw Manteca’s downtown start the transformation from a traditional retail center to a central district whose strength lies in specialty shops, services and “destinations” such as dining.

The opening of Wal-Mart and the balance of the Mission Ridge Shopping Center in 1992 accelerated the decline of downtown as Manteca’s traditional retail stronghold. Actually, the decline started in the 1970s with the building of a shopping center at Yosemite Avenue and Union Road. The drain continued as more and more big boxes and shopping malls were built in surrounding communities. The opening Wal-Mart and Mervyn’s actually helped Manteca start reversing the so-called “retail bleed.”

In the final months of 1999, the fire-guttered El Rey that stood for more than two decades as an eyesore on downtown reopened as a 450-seat restaurant and brewing company.

Manteca Unified School District built its third comprehensive high school Sierra High during the decade and was anticipating breaking ground on its fourth high school in Weston Ranch in Stockton.

Ironically, as the century drew to a close the very thing that gave Manteca life in the early days of the 1900s -train service - was poised to open new horizons in the 21st century.

The Altamont Commuter Express passenger rail service started rolling in 1998 out of the Lathrop-Manteca station building an even firmer bond between Manteca and the job-rich Silicon Valley and Pleasanton-Livermore communities west of the Altamont Pass.