Downtown Manteca needs a bulldozer.
Manteca Mayor Ben Cantu has made that rather clear and he might be right.
The bulldozer we are taking about isn’t the type that you can use to knock down the old Bucktooth Billiards, the perennial Sycamore Arms eyesore, and a few other non-choice properties that are a parasite on downtown and the community as a whole.
We’d taking about a political bulldozer to move the inertia that has been known as the Great Effort to Re-Invent Downtown Manteca for the past 50 or so years.
Cantu is being blunt. He knows what he wants. And that is the core of the problem. Everyone knows what they want for downtown yet no one knows how to get everyone to agree what to do as a group so things can move forward.
Some characterize his efforts to try and address downtown concerns is no more than a one-man council subcommittee even though Councilwoman Debby Moorhead is serving on it with him. This is not because Moorhead is playing the role of the proverbial wallflower, far from it. Instead Cantu launched the latest campaign to change downtown with what some might call preconceived notions that in fairness to the mayor are rather elementary stuff and is — for the most point — rehash. He said the committee of two will listen and then recommend to the council what to do, propose a plan to implement it, and offer suggestions on how to finance it and let the chips fall where they may. Essentially that means the council will have to put up or shut up.
Some believe the mayor isn’t exactly in a listening mode on a number of points given he already firmly believes he has a personal handle on what needs to be done. That might actually be a good thing. But beside we delve further into Cantu’s General Patton approach to winning the downtown war, let’s recap a few inconvenient truths.
1) For the 101st time, downtown Manteca is not dying. Yes, they have struggles just like every business but there are plenty of places that are thriving such as La Mexicana Market, Bedquarters, Century Furniture, and Frank’s Downtown Cafe to name just a few.
2) The original downtown core is limited physically as well as by traffic. It is also way too small to serve as a city center for a community of 85,000 let alone a city that will likely be topping 100,000 residents in six years.
3) This is not a modern commercial area where there may be two dozen or so property owners max. Instead if you look at what the central district really should be there are easily a hundred or more property owners.
4) And here’s the one no one talks about. Few people in Manteca when you talk about downtown view it in the same way you would a Spreckels Park, Orchard Valley, Manteca Marketplace, or a Stadium Retail Center. Some take a nostalgic bent believing it can be restored somehow to its glory days as a traditional retail center. Others want the trendy gathering spot represented by the likes of Pleasanton and Livermore. There are those that don’t see it as a hell-hole at all once you get past some extremely problematic properties.
And still others see downtown as a mixture of the three while keeping in mind the world Amazon has created and the fact those needed to spend time and money downtown to make it work — people who have some of the longest commute trips in the country and fairly young families that command their attention on weekends — aren’t a duplicate of the reality you see in downtown of places like Livermore, Pleasanton, Lodi, and even Turlock. The closest example to what Manteca might have the best shot of emulating due to demographics is downtown Tracy — another community laden with borderline super commuters.
Whether Cantu sees downtown from that perspective or not, his basic premise is correct.
If anything is going to move forward downtown the city is going to have to take the lead, make a few political decisions, adopt a plan and stick to it, and spend some money.
It’s hard to dispute such a stance given the last 50 years of efforts to “remake” downtown Manteca seems to have been the inspiration for the Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore movie “50 First Dates”. Everyone seems to have amnesia about what was proposed before so they keep doing the same thing over and over.
It took a traumatic event in the movie to set things straight. And with apologies to Cantu, perhaps his approach is the traumatic thing needed to snap people out of the fog they are in a downtown.
This is not a merchant problem or a tenant problem. This is a city problem.
And as such the city needs to call the shots until a point is reached where the “market” takes over. This doesn’t mean the city forces anything. It means the city needs to provide the framework the council believes the community wants.
This will cost money. It may mean the city picks up the tab for a marketing/events coordinator to plan and promote cultural/social activities at Library Park and the Manteca Transit Center by expanding on their efforts to establish a food truck court. It also means highlighting what downtown already offers and even partnering to help advertise leasable space and trying to bring parties together.
It may mean extending the “look” of the specialized streetlights and other streetscape. It means power washing and fixing the sidewalk and crosswalk pavers.
It could mean adding landscaping via planters and such to further brighten the appeal of downtown. It can even mean working with the property owner to create a corner feature at the parking feature at Yosemite and Main — perhaps a salute to veterans to tie in with the mural wall overlooking the lot.
And it could mean hardcore code enforcement and possibly even working to purchase perennially problematic buildings and converting them into other uses.
What it doesn’t mean is waiting for the various elements downtown to move things forward. The property and businesses belong to individuals. The streets, sidewalks, library, park, mini-plaza and transit center belong to the community.
Cantu is right in the driving force behind any downtown change has to be the City Council. The city is the largest property owner downtown and as such the community and not individual merchants and landlords have the bigger stake. That doesn’t mean the city should assume they have carte blanche and force a solution involving businesses down anyone’s throat.
Cantu said he would be willing to consider earmarking all or some of the $1.3 million that flows into the city coffers each year that once went to the RDA and is now pigeonholed for an economic development reserve to provide an annual funding source for potential downtown projects. Hopefully the rest of the council will give the idea consideration as well. That is where the nearly $1 million came from last year to upgrade alleys and parking lots came from.
The Council needs to have the city do what it can do on its own to enhance investments they have made in the transit center as well as the library and adjacent park not to mention streetscape upgrades.
Given the apparent community buy in — at least verbally, via social media, and during the predictable uproar during council campaigns every two years — to create a much more teeming city center, investing $1.3 million annually for 10 years on a city plan to draw more people to downtown would seem like a reasonable investment.
But if it isn’t then there needs to be the political will to throw oneself in front of the bulldozer and stop it.
Cantu, however, is absolutely right about one thing: The city can start the ball rolling by moving forward with things that they can do unilaterally.