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Plan it but they may not come
City modifying Terra employment center dream
McKinley Avenue looking south of the 120 Bypass toward Woodward Avenue in the area Terra Business Park was envisioned. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Terra Business Park in the early 1990s was envisioned as the Northern San Joaquin Valley's answer to the venerable Hacienda Business Park in Pleasanton.

Pleasanton had managed to draw high-tech stalwarts such as PeopleSoft and AT&T by creating an employment center on top of a high profile interchange on Interstate 580 and surrounding it with high density housing and retail.

Manteca was hoping to do the same thing just south of the future interchange of McKinley Avenue at the 120 Bypass.

They had gone as far as specific planning on a map with a conceptual plan having an employment center at the heart of a massive oval surrounded by retail and high density residential before fading into traditional single family homes. The theory was it would appeal to high-tech employers.

Nearly 20 years later, the Hacienda Business Park model per se is a no go.

"The city can plan all it wants but it is really what the private sector can do with it," noted Manteca Mayor Willie Weatherford.

And the private sector has determined Manteca is best suited for distribution to take advantage of being within 100 miles of 17 million consumers.

Last week the city approved Terra Ranch with its 212 single family homes and a 200-unit apartment that is on land that originally was a cog in the Terra employment center.

That doesn't mean that Manteca isn't still pursuing a business park and retail center in the area.

"The land immediately to the west of Terra Ranch is still zoned for business park use," noted City Manager Steve Pinkerton last week.

Whatever develops it won't be on the utopian scale that planners and developers once envisioned. At one point they fiddled with the idea of running electric trams down dedicated byways much like the separated bike paths to ferry employees from the heart of the business park to the Lathrop-Manteca Altamont Commuter Express passenger station.

Weatherford was quick to point out the city has replaced the dreams of Terra with 2,000 plus jobs at Spreckels Park that wasn't even on the radar 12 years ago. The city also has the California Public Employees Retirement System behind a drive to build CenterPoint for major distribution centers directly across from the Union Pacific Railroad intermodal freight-truck facility that is being quadrupled in size in northwest Manteca.

The city also is working with developers to move the 1,050-acre Austin Road Business Park forward southwest of the Austin Road and Highway 99 interchange.

Reshaping Terra also reflects another hard reality. High-tech jobs that powered the Silicon Valley aren't coming to the valley any time soon. And those that do come aren't that stable.

A prime example was Indy Electronics that opened in the Manteca Industrial Park in 1980. At its peak, the firm employed 700 workers in basic production line work with most work barely better than minimum wage. A succession of electronic component assembly plants opened in the building including Alphatec and Turnkey Solutions. In each case, operations closed when companies were able to secure lower cost production sites in Mexico or overseas. The building on Industrial Park Drive has now stood vacant for more than a decade. It has been gutted of copper valued at an estimated $750,000 by transients and others.

It was the demise of Spreckels Sugar in 1997 and a chance taken by then AKF Development to turn that 362-acre site of the former sugar refinery into the city's first major industrial park. That set the stage for Manteca's rising star as a prime site for distribution centers.

The goal behind Terra was to employ large numbers of people in head-of-household jobs. But in reality, the Indy Electronics experience showed that wasn't practical in Manteca. Meanwhile distribution centers came in with stable jobs - although in much lower numbers - plus expanded employment in the trucking industry. And in some case - such as the Ford Small Parts Distribution Center for the West Coast - the jobs are definitely head of household with United Auto Workers scale compensation.

Pinkerton noted it is a folly to simply believe planning something and adopting zoning will bring job development. Instead, the city needs to have readily developable land with sewer and water access as well as roads to embrace market forces.

"You will still see a business park in some form out there," Pinkerton said last week.

He added the city is working with developers and landowners to reshape Terra Business Park into something that can take advantage of the market.