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Why downtown Manteca matters
Steps various candidates would take
Yosemite Avenue looking west from Main Street - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin
Downtown Manteca is unlike virtually any other valley town in that it is still at the heart of the city.

It’s a high profile location with Manteca’s heaviest traveled pavement - Main Street - crossing Yosemite Avenue. The southeast corner of the intersection where Bank of America stands today is where Joshua Cowell ended his epic walk over the Sierra from Nevada’s Carson Valley in January of 1863 to build his ranch. Ultimately his ranch was developed over the years to create what is now downtown Manteca.

This is the sentimental corner for those who came of age in the 1950s, 1960s, and even early 1970s when cruising was still legal in Manteca.

And up until the construction of the Highway 99 freeway in 1955 it is where what was then California’s main north-south route crossed Highway 120.

Downtown isn’t an afterthought for most people in Manteca as they simply can’t avoid passing through it in the course of a typical week. It’s heyday as Manteca’s retail hub, though, started fading before Wal-Mart arrived in 1991with the advent of strip centers anchored by stores such as Big Boy, El Rancho Market, Save Mart West, and the old North Main Street Safeway that is now 24 Hour Fitness pulled much of the daily foot traffic out of downtown. The departure of New Deal Market over a decade ago just south of Bank of America and the closure of Ace Hardware just a few years later erased the last high volume retail draw in downtown.

It is against that backdrop plus 40-plus years of ideas to pump new life into downtown with everything from schemes to make Yosemite Avenue and Center Street one way traffic venues to improperly placed crosswalk pavers that snagged women’s heels in a different age when they were still fashionable that those running for elected office in the Nov. 2 municipal election are offering their proposals on where to take downtown next.

What candidates would
like to see happen
Among the mayor hopefuls:

•Retired municipal planner Ben Cantu would like to see city hall, the library and the DMV offices relocated to the site of the Old Manteca Bean Co. behind the Kelley Moore paint store on South Main that would also be removed to make room for the complex. He believes that will go a long way towards replacing the lost drawing power of grocery stores to bolster business at nearby retail, services, and restaurants.

•Council member and Manteca Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Debby Moorhead would like to see a more modest version of the Santa Row concept in San Jose tailored to the Manteca lifestyle to bring mixed uses such as condos and apartments above stores and restaurants on perhaps Center Street or east of Main Street to create both a built-in consumer base plus a draw to bring others downtown.

•Former mayor and former Lathrop-Manteca Sun Post Publisher Carlon Perry favors letting the merchants and business owners downtown control their own destiny without consultants, city leaders, or the community for that matter telling them how to essentially run their business.

•Incumbent Willie Weatherford wants to see the planning area known as downtown expanded and have special zoning put in place that reflects unique issues involving density plus encourage multi-story buildings with retail and office space on the ground floor and condos and apartments on the second and third floors. That would involve having the redevelopment agency buy up strategic property as it becomes available and getting the property owners on board to work with the city to devise an implementation strategy.

Among the council candidates:

•Entrepreneur Samuel Anderson wants a citywide vote to decide how - or even if - Manteca should invest more municipal dollars downtown. He also believes traffic congestion on Main Street must be addressed.

•Challenger Richard Behling would like to see several options placed on the municipal ballot which under law can only be advisory vote. However, once the voters have spoken regardless of the plurality, Behring said the council should immediately move forward with putting ordinances and other things in place to make whatever is embraced by the voters happens. The only caveat is that the city refrains “from being in the business of business” and instead direct public investment to streets, water and sewer lines, and other infrastructure investments that are clearly public in nature.

•Incumbent Vince Hernandez is willing to make himself available as a council representative to work directly with downtown instead of going through staff and consultants who, Hernandez noted often have preconceived notions of what is best for downtown Manteca. Instead he would work to fashion a strategy that downtown interests want.

•Incumbent John Harris believes the best course for downtown is “slowly but surely” as there have been a numbered changes already in the past 20 years. He wants to continue nudging downtown along.

What has happened
in the past 15 years

Manteca, despite the political banter, hasn’t been without improvements in the last 15 years.

A short list of those improvements includes:

•The streetscape improvements that replaced aging 1950s light standards with an antique design plus added streetscape ranging from decorative walks to planters.

•The interactive water play feature at Library Park plus restrooms and tot playground that didn’t exist before.

•The RDA partnership that has helped bring 10 murals to the downtown area.

•Trees that are providing shade and aesthetics that replaced those that were stunted that were planted in the 1980s.

•Decorative crosswalk pavers that replaced previous ones that were put in place improperly two decades ago.

•The mini-plaza on Maple Avenue as well as the veterans’ plaza in front of the American Legion Post Hall.

•The 3.4-mile Tidewater Bike Path was completed to connect downtown with the northern neighborhoods and the Woodward Park area.

That is on top of other private sector investment including the conversion of the Manteca mortuary into a nicely landscaped day spa, the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, the renovation of the brick buildings on Pierce Avenue that house a Chinese restaurant and sports bar, plus numerous storefront upgrades.

But it is the $2 million private sector investment coupled with the $250,000 RDA loan that served as the “linchpin” project that started downtown evolving into what it is today by converting the burned-out shell of the El Rey Theater that was gutted during a screening of the Towering Inferno on  Aug. 6, 1975.

Two major downtown projects will start this fall. One is the expansion of Library Park by tearing up part of Poplar Avenue and the other is the transit station planned for the southeast corner of Moffat Boulevard and South Main Street.