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Destination guru observation in 2007: Highway 99 reeked of ‘why stop here’
WYATT COLUMN destination guru
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Roger Brooks stopped by Manteca 12 years ago.

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

First the good news: He said 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 120,000-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 back in 2007 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 prying 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 12 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, generates more than 2.2 million visitors to Manteca in 2009.

*The BMX track has opened in Spreckels Recreation Park attracting area, regional and state riders.

 *The entrance to Manteca at Highway 99 heading toward downtown has been improved. There is a landscaped median with the words “Manteca” displayed in brick work. A city push for a water feature was squashed by Caltrans as being too distracting.

*Almost $2 million the city snared in Obama Administration stimulus funds designated for highway landscaping to upgrade the Highway 99 and 120 Bypass corridors has been dismal at best. The Caltrans “woodlands” for the 99-120 interchange never took hold. What shrubs managed to flourish has been used time-to-time to provide cover for homeless encampments.

*Landscaping work on the Lathrop Road interchange is almost complete and with one tenth the money spent already looks better than the $2 million stimulus project after nine years.

*After one false start 10 years ago, the city is finally ready to move forward on wayfinding signs.

All-in-all the Highway 99 corridor is looking better these days.

The Yosemite Avenue/Highway 99 interchange was identified as Manteca’s front door in 2007 as that is where the most out-of-town travelers actually pulled off the freeway and into Manteca. A lot of that has to do with the fact East Highway 120 heads into the Golden Country, Sierra, and Yosemite Avenue at that point.

Verification that this is still “the place” most people get their first impression of Manteca is the fact there are 27 food and beverage establishments — think Starbucks and Jamba Juice as well as restaurants — within three blocks  of the interchange that thrive off those going to and from the Sierra in search of a meal.

Bass Pro and Big League Dreams attract visitors as well as Great Wolf. But those are people who are coming to Manteca for the purpose of going to one of those three destinations. Once here, they are a little bit easier to get them interested in dropping some coins at other establishments. Wayfinding signs and some type of visitors’ kiosks at those locations would be a must.

That is also the case for some location near the Yosemite Avenue and Highway 99 interchange. Manteca isn’t exactly doing a Herculean job day-to-day luring travelers to stop here beyond just grabbing a burger, hot coffee, or buying gas.

The now defunct Convention & Visitors Bureau in its final years was completely worthless at targeting those potential dollars.

The wayfinding signs are a start but more nitty gritty information needs to be made available not just to guests at Bass Pro Shops, Great Wolf, and Big League Dreams but also to the biggest potential of visitors’ dollars that either will barely venture into Manteca if they open the city’s front door or simple drive right past it.

The pressing question that should be asked today is whether Manteca can come up with a viable successful partnership between the private and public sectors to capitalize on the potential dollars that roll through Manteca.