The “coach” delivered.
Twenty years ago Mike Atherton, whose associates hung the moniker “coach” on him — assembled a team to do what many thought was impossible — redevelop the shuttered Spreckels Sugar refinery. The company pulled the plug on the plant costing 110 full-time employees and 120 seasonal employees their jobs by issuing the required 60-day notices on Jan. 9, 1996. Spreckels Sugar, which had literally grown up with Manteca opening the same year the city was incorporated in 1918 had slipped from the dominant employer to rank as Manteca’s fifth largest employer.
More daunting than the loss of the paychecks was the fact Manteca would be saddled with blight at the most high profile “intersection” in town — the 120 Bypass and Highway 99 interchange. City leaders were concerned the four 15-story silos along with the factory and warehouse would become an albatross around Manteca’s neck. It had the potential to become a major drag on efforts to entice businesses to Manteca.
No one had every demolished a sugar plant in California at the time and Spreckels Sugar wasn’t going to try.
Instead they rolled out a plan that would have torn down the factory and warehouse but kept the four 15-story silos in place. They proposed surrounding the silos with a 9-hole golf course and hundreds of homes.
Cheek played essential
role in bringing Atherton
& Spreckels Sugar together
They were working with Ron Cheek of RLC Associates at the time. Cheek, a former Manteca public works director, developed a plan as his clients wanted but he saw it as a non- starter.
That is when Cheek approached Atherton.
Atherton, who had never built anything but homes at that point, had earned a reputation as a deal maker who could get things done. He was responsible for the deal that allowed the City of Manteca to buy 52 acres for $1 for the future Woodward Park. Atherton also master planned 500 homes around it and sweetened the $1 deal by tossing in $1,333 per home as they were built to help pay for development of the community park.
“Ron came to me and said, ‘Mike, these guys need your help’,” Atherton recalled.
Atherton traveled to Spreckels Sugar’s headquarters on the East Coast and made his pitch to the firm’s top man, Bob Green.
“I told Bob, ‘you have a liability and that I can make it an asset’,” Atherton said.
Whether they thought Atherton was brass didn’t matter.
Every developer of consequence they tried to sell the factory and land to passed. There were major concerns about underground water contamination.
Atherton before meeting with Spreckels executives did his homework. He contacted an associate at an engineering firm he had employed before and asked about the potential for major clean-up problems. Research showed the site had been monitored by state agencies since 1957 for potential groundwater issues. He was told Spreckels had used bunker oil that meant any spilled fuel didn’t seep far into the ground. Nor did Spreckels use any carcinogens. The only issue was areas were oil had been spilled and that clean-up would be relatively simple. The big issue was a 75-year accumulation of lime on the site that was used to process sugar beets.
His pitch was simple. He told Spreckels to give him five years and as parcels were sold for development they’d get paid.
Spreckels bought into the deal.
Atherton became the point man in a private-public team effort that turned one of the darkest events in Manteca history into a runaway success.
created 2,200 jobs
“I called it a win-win-win-win-win situation for everybody,” Atherton said of the 362-acre multi-use Spreckels Park. “Spreckels won. The city won. The redevelopment agency won. The community won. We won.”
Atherton said the conversion of the shuttered sugar refinery into what is today an economic epicenter of Manteca with more than 2,200 jobs would have been impossible without redevelopment agency assistance.
A key $5 million RDA loan to put in the first sections of Spreckels Avenue along with extending sewer and water lines made it possible to sell buildable sites to firms that were away from the 365-acre plant site’s perimeters.
“When we sold a parcel, 90 percent of the money went to pay back the RDA and to Spreckels,” Atherton said.
But before that could happen, they had to raze the plant — silos and all.
“No one is going to want to develop with 15-story concrete silos looking over their property,” Atherton said. “No one at that time had ever completely dismantled a sugar refinery.”
So Atherton made another $1 deal — selling the demolition rights to the factory and warehouse to A&S Metals. The concrete silos were imploded and the concrete broken down and used as the base for the widening of Highway 99 between Manteca and Ripon from four to six lanes. More than 98 percent of the plant — including the silos and lime — was recycled.
The project wasn’t without risk. Before a deal was closed to sell land to Porter Homes in Lodi to build the 166-home Curran Grove neighborhood, the AKF Partnership was within three weeks of going belly up.
“That (the sale to Porter Homes) bought us another five years,” Atherton said.
Atherton boldly predicted at the dawn of 2000 that Spreckels Park would virtually be completed in 10 years. Experts told the city that was impossible as such a project would take 25 years or so. The project was 90 percent completed in 2010 with only several parcels left to be developed.
As of today, the partnership has only one 12-acre parcel remaining between J&M Equipment and American Modular. A parcel behind Home Depot was sold years ago to a developer that was approved to build business park style condos but has yet to break ground.
Atherton noted the expanded tax base that Spreckels Park gave the RDA was enough to leverage other projects such as Orchard Valley anchored by Bass Pro Shops, Big League Dreams, and the Stadium Retail Center.
Two things happened that Atherton credits with making his vision work. First was the addition of Bill Filios to the partnership that brought with him a wide repertoire of commercial and business park experience having worked with Alex Spanos for years. The other critical element was partnering with the Manteca RDA
Top city bureaucrats were leery at the time as the RDA had a relatively small tax base. They preferred easy projects. Spreckels Sugar though was the poster child for what RDA was intended for namely eliminating urban blight and creating new jobs.
Fodo-4-Less and Frito Lay opened in 1999. The partnership still had a challenge. They had to get the infrastructure in place – the rest of the roads, sewer and water lines yet they couldn’t secure financing as banks still thought it wouldn’t work. That’s’ when a $5 million RDA loan – that was paid back years ahead of schedule with interest – tipped the scale. The improvements went in and they secured ADPS Packaging and everything picked up speed after that.
There was also a critical $1 million performance “loan” that was not paid back in cash but simply would be forgiven if Home Depot opened on time and generated projected sales tax. That $1 million helped put in Commerce Drive allowing Home Depot to open.
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