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Destination guru: Highway 99 reeks of why stop here
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Roger Brooks stopped by Manteca three years ago.

The man they call the “destination guru” had good news and bad news.

First the good news: Manteca has “tremendous potential” and is in an “incredible geographic position.”

That’s obvious.

Then he delivered the bad news.

Manteca is ugly.

Or more precisely, the Highway 99 corridor that serves as Manteca’s front door isn’t anything to write home about or to entice any of the 110,000-plus folks that drive by who aren’t locals to pull off the freeway and stay a spell.

Brooks of Destination Development Inc. did more to earn his $9,200 consulting fee paid by PG&E than to tell the 60-plus community leaders gathered to hear him dole out advice than to say Manteca desperately needs to pull some weeds and landscape the entrance to the city.  

He said strangers don’t fall in love with the idea of visiting here just because it’s the “Heart of California.” He pointed out travelers don’t work up an appetite to want to spend a few days poking around Manteca because it is the Pumpkin Capital of California. They don’t flip through Sunset Magazine and see an ad proclaiming “visit the Crossroads of California” and are so smitten by the slogan that they drop their plans to visit Disneyland and come here instead. Nor do they get excited about the fact it is The Family City unless, of course, they come from a city where there are no families and they are anthropologists that want to see how the other half live.

Brooks had even more sobering news.

During the few days he spent visiting the sights and stores of Manteca, he came across a young lady pushing a baby stroller. He struck up a conversation and found out she had lived here a year. He also found out she couldn’t tell him where downtown was.

“Locals first, visitors second,” Brooks emphasized.

Brooks said why bother to work to pull people off the Highway 120 Bypass or lure them here from Modesto or Stockton if you can’t get people in Manteca to shop, dine, and entertain themselves here.

If Brooks sounded like “Obvious Man” in the comic strip “Non Sequitur” drawn by Wiley, it wasn’t by accident. He’s built a reputation with communities that take his advice to heart to devise action plans that boost the local economy by jettisoning the trite and non-descript to create a reason for people to visit or spend money in a community.

“It’s about making money,” Brooks said to the crowd gathered in the council chambers one August morning three years ago.

Between jabs at examples of trite and unsuccessful plans to market other communities to visitors, Brooks dropped a few more words of advice: Don’t create a strategic plan. Create an action plan. Develop a reason for people to come here. Don’t let the politicians control it as they have a tendency to want to please as many people as possible. Don’t devise a marketing plan by consensus. Devise something that will work and has legs to go.

So what has Manteca done so far with Brooks’ advice?
•They have worked to capitalize on Big League Dreams regional pulling power that books out-of-town tournaments 52 weeks a year and draws 400,000 plus annual visitors.
•Woodward Park has been turned into a Mecca for Northern California recreational soccer thanks to its eight soccer fields – including lighted fields – as well as nearby soccer sites.
•Bass Pro Shops has opened and, by the firm’s own statistics, generated 2.7 million visitors to Manteca in 2009.
•The BMX track has opened in Spreckels Recreation Park attracting area, regional and state riders.

BLD was in it inaugural year when Rogers spoke.

Collectively, Manteca has added over 3 million visitors a year between new “attractions” since his visit. The locals – led by the Manteca Convention & Visitors Bureau – already had recreational sports in their cross-hairs. By all measures, it is working. Things such as the Manteca Senior Games and other recreational sports are helping to further capitalize on that market which, judging by the team uniforms you see at hotels, restaurants, and in stores, seems to be able to spend money even in a weakened economy.

This fall Manteca will start doing something about that ugliness that is the Highway 99 corridor and the 120 Bypass thanks to almost $2 million in federal stimulus money for landscaping.

If all goes well, the biggest undertaking in the Northern San Joaquin Valley in terms of freeway landscaping, will turn the two roadways into a lush drive complete with large woodlands at the 120 Bypass and Highway 99 interchange.

It would be interesting to see what Brooks would have to say if he visited Manteca in 2012.

And the nice thing is Manteca has been able to do it without writing Brooks a $30,000 check for additional consulting fees to develop an action plan.

Manteca’s capitalization on visitor based spending is a true successful partnership between the private and public sectors.