I live just over a block from the edge of a minor miracle.
Spreckels Park — the Phoenix that arose from the rubble of the Spreckels Sugar Plant that for 78 years provided Manteca with a sweet economic high from sugar beets — today is a teeming commercial and employment center providing well over 2,000 jobs. The original 362-acre site now supports the 166-home Curran Grove neighborhood, retailers like Home Depot and Target as well as distribution centers for firms such as Ford Motor Co. and Dreyer’s Ice Cream.
It would be a different story had it not been for the now defunct Manteca Redevelopment Agency.
RDAs — when local agencies agreed with forming them — worked by “freezing” property tax distribution in place at a certain point in time. Then any increase in value via resales, new construction, or regular Proposition 13 adjustments went to fund the RDA. The assessed property value set aside for the RDA allowed it to secure bonds with the expressed purposes of fighting blight, triggering economic activity, and funding affordable housing.
An $8 million RDA loan that everyone in a position of authority among the bureaucratic ranks at City Hall including the city manager was against except for then Economic Development Becky Meredith was the critical piece of funding that allowed the three Manteca Musketeers — Mike Atherton, Bill Filios, and Bing Kirk — along with their astute group of merry men led by the likes of Ron Cheek — to turn what could have been the biggest cancerous sore on a growing city in the entire Central Valley given the shuttered sugar beet plant’s high profile location into an economic juggernaut that transformed Manteca.
Spreckels Park is 100 percent RDA assessed valuation. It allowed Manteca to leverage — among other things — the Big League Dreams, significant investment in downtown and the expansion of local businesses, as well as putting in place Daniels Street that made Stadium Retail Center and, now with the extension of Daniels Street, secured the Great Wolf deal. That is in addition to the 20 percent set aside for affordable housing that brought Juniper Apartments for workforce households as well as two of the three low-income senior housing complexes the RDA helped finance including the Cottage Village now under construction on Cottage Avenue.
Without the $8 million RDA loan that was key to connecting Spreckels Park Avenue from Yosemite Avenue to Moffat Boulevard along with essential infrastructure such as water and sewer lines, the transformation of the sugar plant would never have been completed.
Instead it would have been a homeless haven and magnet for all sorts of illicit activity that likely would have poisoned the values and quality of life in my neighborhood and for a good half mile around if not the entire town.
The current City Council wouldn’t be wrestling with the design of monument signs at the entrances to Manteca as there would be four soaring 15-story concrete sugar silos serving as a message to the world what they were about to drive past on the 120 Bypass and Highway 99 — a rundown blighted community.
The three Musketeers had worked out a deal with the landowners that allowed the land to be sold parcel by parcel as it was developed saving the need to sink capital upfront into the purchase. They pooled more than a million dollars but quickly blew through that in environmental studies, initially addressing on-site issues regarding lime, and the initial demolition. No investor or bank wanted to take the risk of what could go wrong with dismantling a massive sugar beet refinery plant. There was plenty of undeveloped land around to make a buck on that had little or no risk. That is why the abandoned Holly Sugar plant still stands in Tracy as do the massive Spreckels Sugar silos in Spreckels, California, just west or Salinas and every other sugar refinery ever built in this state.
The $8 million loan was paid back with interest years ahead of schedule. Compare that to most RDA loans that were forgiven if certain economic benchmarks were attained in terms of new employment and increases sales tax.
It is why I have no issue with a cut of the property taxes I pay — and that of others whose homes or commercial properties are within the RDA boundaries that are not the same as the city boundaries — going to pay off the bond indebtedness that helped make Spreckels Park a reality. That 30 year bond indebtedness — just like your home mortgage — includes not just the principal but interest payments. In the case of the RDA it is millions of dollars in interest.
What I do have an issue with is how the City of Manteca didn’t just bobble more than a few public facilities-based endeavors but compounded them primarily due to having no sense of urgency or ironclad game plan. It is what comes from “playing” with other people’s money when you have no skin in the game as the Three Musketeers did and using a funding mechanism that elected council members over the years viewed as “extra money” that wasn’t scrutinized as closely even though it was property taxes that would have gone to day-to-day city operations such as hiring more police and repairing streets.
The sale of the two RDA properties this month — the 8.07 acres on South Main Street and the 3.1 acres at Daniels Street and Airport Way along with the yet-to-be-sold former Qualex building at 555 Industrial Park Drive — represent not bad judgment when they were bought for their intended purpose but rather poor follow through and even more hideous lack of attention to details.
One was supposed to be a county courthouse complex. One was secured via a land swap with the “city” to secure a county satellite office complex. The other was supposed to be marking its 12th anniversary this year as a spacious, secure, and modern Manteca Police Department headquarters. All three properties were forced to be sold because of the city’s ineptness.
And while the $6.1 million bid on the initial two propertieswill be split among all the taxing entities that originally agreed to forgo increased property taxes within the boundaries of the now defunct RDA when it was formed, I — along with others whose property taxes are still partially siphoned to lay off the RDA bond debt for another 20 or so years — will be making investors richer while the community has nothing tangible to show for the three properties mentioned after more than $8 million was spent on their purchase and subsequent upgrades and studies.
For anyone to characterize the $860,000 the city earned at auction as a win for Manteca is incorrect. Do not confuse it with the success stories that solid public-private partnerships via the RDA have done for Manteca.
Regarding the three properties, the property taxpayers impacted are not being made whole. Spend $1 in general fund property tax revenue once and they’re not paying another 60 cents on the $1 spent for the next 30 years. That, however, is exactly what happened when property taxes were used to leverage RDA bonds.
Whatever the city does with the $860,000 they will receive from the sale of the first two former RDA properties it had better not be spent on reoccurring or routine municipal expenses or even a consultant report on yet another grand scheme. It had best be spent on a tangible improvement in the community. Not only does that follow the goal of the RDA based on what the money was originally diverted for but it can take some of bitterness out of the pill property owners are swallowing for the next 20 plus years paying off the interest that funded the Manteca follies that are a scar on the otherwise solid record of the former Manteca RDA.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.