Let’s say you are 30 years old.
You’re married and have two kids ages 3 and 5.
You probably don’t care too much about downtown Manteca.
After all, there’s nothing there for you — right? There’s the library that you take your kids to story time occasionally. There’s a few banks, some stores, a few specialty shops, the post office, and a place or two to eat. You do most of your shopping and dining at the chains. Target. Wal-Mart. Applebee’s. And of course with kids, McDonald’s.
All in all, there are a fair number of good reasons to venture downtown: GK Music, Tipton’s, J&J Printing, the Village Sandwich Shoppe, Century Furniture, Tammy’s Baby Shoppe, Athens’ Burgers, Manteca Bedquarters — you get the picture.
Things, though, are pretty much the way they were 20 years ago when there were 30,000 less residents.
Is that healthy for a city of 73,000 that — if it continues to grow at the rate it did at the depths of the Great Recession and not during a full economic recovery — will have 100,000 residents by the year 2031?
Nico Tejada didn’t think so.
Tejada, who departed for Texas to run a Tenet hospital there, was the CEO of Doctors Hospital of Manteca up until a few months ago. He made it a point to become involved with the Manteca Chamber of Commerce and served as its president. His big initiative working with downtown stalwarts such as Brenda Franklin and the chamber was infusing more life into the city’s central district.
Part of it was civic pride but most of it came down to a cold, harsh reality. Manteca and its neighboring cities of Ripon and Lathrop can be a tough sell when you’re trying to attract physicians and medical professionals.
Tejada noted people a hospital recruits in a bid to set up a practice in the community want to know about everything such as schools, housing options, strength of the economy, and amenities. Pretty much just like anyone else. But doctors establishing practices aren’t exactly mobile. Once they put down anchor, it is pretty much permanent. And due to their profession, they don’t have a lot of time during a typical week to travel far for dining options that aren’t repetitious, culture either defined as nightlife or entertainment that is beyond the big screen, or a host of other things that many in Manteca head elsewhere to access.
It is why physicians are interested in the vibrancy of a community that you can normally find in a downtown. And it is why downtown Manteca was the last place Tejada would take physicians and their spouses that he was trying to recruit.
So why does this matter? First, there isn’t exactly an overabundance of general practionners in the Manteca-Ripon-Lathrop community. There are a number that are here that are nearing retirement. And there aren’t enough doctors being generated from medical schools to meet the national demand.
It is why Tejada was so passionate about seeing downtown Manteca grow. It could become critical in the coming years when the physician squeeze worsens.
In a way, it’s ironic. What hospital CEOs like Tejada and his replacement Ikenna “Ike” Mmeje see as key for a community to compete with the likes of the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Colorado and virtually every place else for physicians was clearly identified in a blueprint dubbed Vision 2020 fashioned 17 years ago by a 24-member citizen task force the council tapped. The goal was to put in place goals and strategies to make sure Manteca had not just a vibrant economy when 2020 rolled around but also a vibrant culture with the necessary amenities.
With 2020 five years away there has been no significant movement in downtown. Sure, the city spent a million here and there on nice street light fixtures, fancied up and expanded Library Park, helped the mural effort and sank $8 million into a sharp looking Transit Center.
But they have done nothing that would set the stage for private sector to take risks and expand on what already exists.
Yes, we’ve heard it all before. There are too many absentee landlords. Getting people downtown to agree on a plan is like herding cats. Funny, but in the five previous efforts since 1980 to do something with downtown that’s what elected leaders and key city staff always say.
What needs to be done is to create a special zoning district that is expanded well beyond the traditional downtown core with relaxed rules for development and incentives. If the city can get creative to bring in Bass Pro, Big League Dreams, Costco, and perhaps even Great Wolf then they can do something that will improve the community’s health figuratively and literally.
What they have done instead is drop the ball. They started twice on work to put in place a development template conducive to the uniqueness of central Manteca but each time it was dropped after the community development director departed.
And please don’t say opposition killed efforts to transform downtown. If anything in Manteca ever had opposition it was BLD. Now look at it today.
Either city management along with the City Council believe in the need for a vibrant downtown or they don’t.
Every two years during the election cycle they say they do. Then they spend the next two years throwing up their hands.
The proverbial three-legged stool — property owners, business people, and city government — can’t be created to make downtown vibrant unless someone who controls the tools such as regulations and zoning assumes the role of carpenter.