As 10,000 plus people waited for Manteca’s most visible landmark to come tumbling down in March of 1997, then Mayor Bill Perry stood outside of Spreckels Sugar’s main gate along then two-lane East Yosemite Avenue.
A voice behind him grumbled loudly that it was the end of Manteca.
Perry, hearing that remark, turned to a cluster of reporters and officials vowing that the impending implosion of the four 15-story concrete silos that had held sugar for the once nightly Spreckels Sugar empire was the beginning of “something great.”
Minutes later 400 pounds of dynamite sent the massive silos earthward as the last visible signs of Manteca’s 78-year association with Spreckels Sugar disappeared 10 seconds later in a massive cloud of dust.
The sentiment 20 years ago next month when the silos were imploded was anything but upbeat save for a few people like Bill Perry. For years Spreckels Sugar was the city’s largest private sector employer although by the time it closed on Jan. 9, 1996 it has slipped to the bottom of the top 10 with 230 full-time and part-time workers.
It had fallen victim to ever tightening air quality standards for the San Joaquin Valley, cheaper labor at sugar refineries in Texas and Louisiana, foreign government subsidized sugar imports, and the soda beverage industry’s shift from sugar to fruticose.
And while Holly Sugar in Tracy hung on for several more harvest seasons, its closure would not be as catastrophic on that community as Spreckels’ demise was on Manteca.
Spreckels Sugar at
most high profile
location in Manteca
The reason was simple. The closed sugar plant and adjoining abandoned cattle feed lot was at the most high profile location in Manteca at the junction of the 120 Bypass and Highway 99.
They were dark days in the minds of many even though by that time employers such as Indy Electronics with just under 600 workers at that time had eclipsed Spreckels as Manteca’s biggest private sector employer.
Many treated Spreckels’ demise like a death in the family. In a way it was as Spreckels with its towering silos had been what most people has associated Manteca with for 78 years.
Manteca’s elected leadership, however, didn’t lose its collective head. They used every tool they had — primarily the redevelopment agency that the state has since eliminated — to plot an economic rebirth of 362 acres where the plant stood.
Initial redevelopment plans by Spreckels had called for the 362 acres to be converted to housing with a 9-hole golf course while leaving the four 15-story silos in place. Banks were underwhelmed with the plan. The firm’s bid to shop the property to other developers was fruitless as every developer had major concerns about possible hidden costs related to environmental clean-up as well as the expense of demolishing the refinery, warehouse, and silos.
No one had ever completely demolished a sugar refinery.
That is when AKF — Mike Atherton, Bing Kirk and Bill Filios — stepped up. They determined in talking within longtime Spreckels employees there weren’t any major hidden clean-up costs although they’d eventually have to spend close to $1 million in subsidies to prove that was the case.
Atherton became the point man in a private-public team effort that turned one of the darkest events in Manteca history into a runaway success.
They were able to recycle 98 percent of what was demolished earning kudos from a state agency.
Arguably the key component to the plan was a $5 million redevelopment agency loan to put in the first sections of Spreckels Avenue along with extending sewer and water lines made it possible to sell buildable sites to firms that were away from the 362-acre plant site’s perimeters. The partners had almost gone through all of their financial resources. Conventional lenders still weren’t willing to issue loans.
The RDA loan ended up being paid off with interest several years ahead of schedule. The biggest dividend, though, was how the tens of millions of business park construction ultimately allowed the RDA to leverage the infrastructure for the Stadium Retail Center as well as to build Big League Dreams.
a minor miracle
The fact the silos and factory came down within 15 months was a miracle in itself. Elsewhere where sugar plants have shuttered including Tracy as well as Spreckels outside of Spreckels the tall, imposing concrete silos still stand. They serve as a monument to the past for a few but most view them as blight.
Had the shuttered sugar plant stayed in place, it would have been a cancerous blight on Manteca as a huge 362-acre billboard for economic decay for the people in the 130,000 plus unique daily vehicle trips that pass on the two freeways.
Target stands where the main factory once was.
The former almond orchard that replaced factory housing where the likes of John Steinbeck and others lived while toiling at the factory is now a neighborhood known as Curran Grove with 166 homes.
Aptly named Phoenix Drive runs behind Target to the backside of Home Depot while passing a component of the seventh ranked Fortune 500 company — the Ford Motor Co. parts distribution center.
In all, there are well over 2,300 people employed in businesses, retail, and service-orientated operations such as food service on land that once supported 220 jobs.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email email@example.com