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Cantu: Expectations by some is mountains will move; reality dictates lesser movement
Dennis Wyatt

Let’s be honest. Many people never expected Ben Cantu to get elected as Manteca’s mayor.

But he did.

After five unsuccessful bids the Energizer Bunny of Manteca politics got elected.

Come Tuesday shortly after 5 p.m. Cantu will be Manteca’s mayor.

The odds are things will change.

Some act like it’ll be the rapture.

Some expect Armageddon.

The truth likely will end up being somewhere between those two extremes.

There will be no wholesale revolution. At the end of the day Cantu has just one of five votes on the council. And it takes three votes for the council to give the city manager marching orders or establish city policy and spending priorities. Manteca is a general law city and not a charter city, meaning California law limits the mayor’s power considerably.

That said as the person who conducts council meetings Cantu can set the tone. Equally important given the mayor’s position he is looked upon as the face of the city.

Cantu could make the mistake that some of his predecessors have and use the mayor’s seat to play the role of the bully. Given his demeanor and what he wants to accomplish he’s likely to use it as a pulpit, if you will.

The irony of  aspirations and fears voiced so far about Cantu as mayor is when you peel away the personality and approach his ultimate desires for what Manteca can be aren’t that much different than Mayor Steve DeBrum’s or anyone else on the council. The difference can be found in tact. 

Cantu and his colleagues serving on the next council term that gets underway Tuesday are still restricted by state laws, financial limitations, the need to be financially secure for the next downturn, legal limits on what you can assess growth, and the tendency of the voting public to want more services and amenities without paying more taxes or fees.

Mayors and council members also share the same frustrations Cantu has with the city’s failure at times to follow through on plans or the government process moving excruciatingly slow. The big difference is Cantu seems to be a tad more unaccepting of dropped balls and what might be perceived as foot-dragging even if it is rooted in staffing shortages, funding shortfalls, or regulatory hurdles.

Cantu during an interview Thursday provided an insight into where he may try to steer the city.

“This community has very little to offer visitors and very little to offer professionals and administrative headquarters companies,” Cantu said. 

Cantu pointed to a list of deficiencies including a downtown that isn’t living up to its potential as a gathering place and cultural hub as well as a lack of community amenities. Cantu also points to what he believes is a less-than-robust offering of shopping and dining options for a city of 81,450 heading to 120,000 plus residents in 20 years.

Cantu said if you’re a visitor, Manteca is a “great place to sleep.”

What he perceives as a lack of attractions to lure visitors does double duty as a lack of amenities for residents.

Given his mantra of the last 20 years plus, it isn’t surprising that Cantu sees downtown as pivotal to taking Manteca to the next level.

Downtown — depending upon how you do the counting — is also the graveyard of either four or five developed municipal plans to transform it during the past 50 plus years. The most successful — the 1998 effort that led to the end-of-the-19th century street lights, the mural project, establishing the transit center with a community room, and expanding Library Park — also was never finished or kept alive.

Cantu wants to see city hall brought back downtown. That would allow for the conversion of the existing Civic Center into a community center with the council chambers repurposed as a modest performing arts center.

He believes the library should expand into the McFall Room community room given the $8 million transit center was designed with a community room that is being drastically underutilized.

This is not a new proposal from Cantu.

The reason the previous downtown “plans” never went too far and were ultimately abandoned instead of modified slightly has everything to do with the downtown dynamics between those property owners not buying into the long-term given they see leasing or renting property only in what they can get in the here and now, merchants, the city, and the community as a whole being as easy to herd as 1,000 cats when trying to get them on the same page and committed to a plan.

Cantu believes the answer lies with a strong and persistent council stance.

It won’t be easy. 

Attention spans are short and there are a lot of pressing demands when it comes to wants and needs. 

There is also an external threat if Poag Development — the owner of Orchard Valley — proceeds with its latest vision to scarp the lifestyle center approach and add apartment complexes while filling the vacant in-line store space along Lifestyle Street with dining, entertainment venues, and shops designed for residents who can walk there as well as out-of-town visitors stopping at Bass Pro Shops or other Manteca and area residents making use of the 16-screen AMC Theater.

While Manteca could support two “downtowns” — one traditional and another modeled after the successful Santana Row concept in San Jose — an Orchard Valley undertaking would drain a lot of potential private sector investment drawn by more flexible floor plans, high profile location along the 120 Bypass, and no perceived parking problems.

The odds are Cantu as well as his fellow council members want to see downtown transform and become even more prosperous as well as Orchard Valley become a 21st century version of a downtown south of the 120 Bypass.

There are two big differences. First Orchard Valley benefits from one owner and the ability to secure needed private sector capital. The second is less limitations created by traffic. Orchard Valley was designed as a “downtown” with the in-line storefronts facing each other instead of toward major roads. That means there isn’t a massive amount of traffic going down Lifestyle Street. Main Street is still the heaviest traveled north-south route in Manteca while Yosemite Avenue is No. 2 for east-west corridors after Louise Avenue. Both intersect in the heart of downtown.

If closing the 100 and 200 blocks of West Yosemite to create a pedestrian mall that could support an explosion of sidewalk dining and such was deemed as the best course of action, the odds are Manteca residents would make it difficult for city leaders to pursue such a course as it would mean a significant change in driving patterns.

Where Cantu will be able to take Manteca depends not just on two other votes but also on the will of the people. It’s one thing to talk about what you want, it’s completely another to be willing to pay the cost for it whether it is raising taxes, making things such as a new swimming pool a lower priority, or a significant change in driving habits.