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The field of economic dreams
City corn field yields sports complex, retail, future investment
Development and proposed projects on land northwest of the Highway 120 Bypass and Airport Way interchange were once almost all part of the citys wastewater treatment plant site. - photo by RYAN BALBUENA

Five years ago it was nothing more than surplus city-owned land featuring an open drainage ditch with weed infested fields on one side and rows of corn and a pole climbing training site on the other.

Today the area draws 430,000 people a year to play softball and soccer at the Big League Dreams sports complex just over a stone’s throw from the wastewater treatment plant.

It is also one of Manteca’s major shopping areas anchored by Kohl’s and Costco.

And that is just for starters.

Nearly two years ago the city inked an agreement with the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors to develop a South County satellite center for county offices on 10 acres directly across from the BLD complex. The project, when built, will bring up to 500 jobs to Manteca.

Just west of Costco is where McWhinney Development is negotiating with the city to build a $200 million Great Wolf Resort with 400 to 600 rooms as well as an indoor water park and conference center.

The city is also working on creating a 110-acre family entertainment zone immediately west of the 30-acre BLD complex. Such a zone could target everything from virtual amusement parks to miniature golf and such.

Approved but waiting financing is a 120 room Microtel Suites hotel on the westside of Airport Way just north of Daniels Street.

Plans have been submitted but have not moved forward for the city’s fifth McDonald’s restaurant on the southeast corner of Airport Way and Daniels Street while a plan to develop a shopping center in the same location anchored by a Lowe’s Home Improvement Center has been put on ice due to the economy.

The city also has toyed with the idea of building a business park north of BLD by extending Daniels Street all the way to Yosemite Avenue.

All of this is in an area the city largely ignored up until five years ago save two proposals. The first was in the mid-1980s from a group that wanted to build an Indian bingo hall - the forerunner to Indian casinos - at the Airport Way and 120 Bypass interchange. The group wanted to take advantage of the fact that the interchange was the fairly high-profile exit to reach Oakwood Lake Resort and the Manteca Water Slides. The other was a city effort in 1989 to encourage Yellow Freight to build a terminal where the Stadium Retail Center is today. Yellow Freight had wanted to build at South Main Street and the 120 Bypass but the council voted 3-2 against it. Yellow Freight said thanks but no thanks to the Airport Way/120 Bypass proposal and located instead along Interstate 205 in Tracy.

If it wasn’t for the city woefully under collecting park fees for years in growth to develop community parks as well as a decision by a development group headed up by Mike Atherton to sell Manteca 52 acres for a dollar, the odds are the Airport Way corridor at the 120 Bypass would still be used as a land bank for future wastewater treatment plant expansion plans.

Manteca simply didn’t have the money to develop Woodward Park. It became a sore issue as houses were built and the 52 acres remained weed infested. That was when then City Councilwoman Denise Giordano came back in 2001 from a League of California Cities Conference excited about a private sector firm known as Big League Dreams that would partner long-term with cities to develop, maintain and operate sports complexes.

The idea was to build such a complex on more than half of the Woodward Park site. Neighborhood reaction prompted Giordano – who initially favored exploring partnering with BLD to develop a complex at Woodward Park – to come out against it. Meanwhile then Councilman Willie Weatherford stepped up to champion it on the grounds it would save the city money while providing needed amenities

An ensuing four-year battled over the BLD complex at Woodward Park ended due to three things: A spur in growth coupled with increased park fees was bringing in park development money, bonus bucks charged to developers for sewer certainty was bringing in additional money that essentially made up for under collecting in previous years, and it was proposed shifting the BLD complex to the city-owned land by the wastewater treatment plant where redevelopment agency funds could be used to build the complex.

Those three things provided funding to develop initial phases of Woodward Park and made it possible to develop a 30-acre sports complex.

In one fell swoop, Manteca was able to develop a major park that includes eight soccer fields plus put in place a sports complex.