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Peeling off food processing jobs
A Manteca-to-Joliet fruit & veggie express train?
The expanding Union Pacific intermodal operations on Roth Road could trigger job creation in Manteca. - photo by Photo Contributed

Color Manteca’s future employment potential purple.

The purple pipe installed in 2002 to save 350 jobs at Eckert’s Cold Storage where bell peppers are washed and processed primarily for pizza chains could provide one of three critical elements for Manteca to secure more employment opportunities.

The others are Manteca’s agricultural roots and the plan to triple the size of the Union Pacific intermodal truck to rail lift facility on the city’s western border with Lathrop.

The three could combine to allow Manteca to take advantage of a demand for a second “fruit and veggie express” train to urban markets east of the Rockies.

Union Pacific representatives working with Manteca Economic Development Manager Don Smail are pushing for the private sector to create the nucleus of home base for such a train.

A  fruit and veggie express of 15 refrigerated train cars has been making the  30-hour trek to the UP intermodal operation in Joliet, Illinois, for 20 years from Delano near Fresno where produce is processed and packaged for distributing to supermarkets. But instead of staying in Illinois it moves to the Eastern Seaboard where it supplies an insatiable demand for fresh California produce.

Railroad officials would like to see a second express train run to Joliet to supply Chicago and the Midwest. There’s one hitch, though. The ground back in Illinois is frozen during much of the winter and part of the spring. That means if produce is washed and processed there the agricultural wastewater would have to be processed with domestic wastewater. It can’t be disposed off via the land due to the harsh winter. The heavy nitrate concentration from washing produce overtaxes wastewater treatment plans just as it was doing in Manteca before the purple pipe was installed.

Manteca has a five million gallon basin to handle agricultural wastewater adjacent to the municipal wastewater treatment plant. Eckert’s requires only a million gallons of capacity.

“They (the railroad) would like to see food packaging operations spring up near the intermodal operation here,” Smail said.

It fits in well with a job strategy that the city started pursuing two years ago under City Manager Steve Pinkerton.

For years Manteca said no to food processors for the very reason Joliet doesn’t want them due to expensive problems they create at wastewater treatment plants. Pinkerton realized the land disposal that the basin and purple pipe allows is a game changer.

Smail noted the city has been getting the word out that food processors are welcome in Manteca. The end result is several food firms now have Manteca on their radar.

Smail noted that while most food processing jobs aren’t head of household in nature they do provide families with essential second jobs or even people with their first employment opportunity.

“It (food processing jobs) have helped a lot of people over the years have sufficient income to buy homes,” Smail said.

Green business park

Agriculture also figures into another job strategy Manteca is pursuing - green business parks.

Smail said it would involve taking advantage of the agricultural waste that is abundant in the valley to power a biomass electricity plant that would be located in a future business park. The plant would provide the electricity needs for employment centers in the business park while excess power would be sold to PG&E. Such a strategy takes advantage of renewable energy credits that have high dollar values on the emerging pollution credit marker.

A third job area that Manteca is pursuing involves luring more medical services to build off the synergy of two hospitals and the new cancer treatment center opening later this year.

Smail noted Councilman Vic Hernandez has been a big advocate of Manteca capturing more health care-related jobs. More than 11 percent of the gross national product goes into healthcare expenditures.  It is one of the few fields that haven’t retracted in terms of jobs during the Great Recession.

Giving Manteca a leg up in Smail’s estimation is the fact it is at the center of nearly a million people within a 30-minute drive in Modesto, Stockton, and Manteca with health care facilities that are easy to access by freeway.

The Manteca hospitals are also near retail and other services. He noted that St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton is far from a freeway and isn’t in an area of that city that is bustling with economic activity.