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Downtown Manteca at crossroads
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Petula Clark would not have been inspired to sing her 1960s hit “Downtown” were she to walk the streets in the heart of Manteca today.

To put it bluntly – save for a few Old Guard businesses that have built a loyal following with outstanding customer service – there isn’t much of a reason to get many of the 65,000 residents who live in Manteca or the 100,000 or so in the immediate trade area to head down to Yosemite and Main and actually get out of their cars instead of passing through.

Salt Lake City – a town notorious for not having a lot of life past 6 o’clock – is a bustling hive of activity compared to downtown Manteca. The sidewalks might as well be rolled up after 6 p.m. save for Kelley Brothers Brewing Co. and a handful of other businesses.

One could blame this on the economic downtown but it wouldn’t be correct. It is the result of wrong-headed thinking on the part of more than a few people as to what downtown should be.

It isn’t exactly a state secret that most of the people who reside in Manteca work out of town. That means evenings and weekends are the time they are mostly likely to get lured downtown.  Pleasanton and Lodi are two examples of older downtowns that have a vibrant night and weekend following. True, a large number of traditional or specialty retailers are closed evenings and Sundays in those two communities but a surprising number aren’t. One wouldn’t expect a Tipton’s – which understands customer service and niche marking as good as anyone else – to be open on Sunday or evenings. The problem is Manteca lacks a reason for specialty stores such as you’d find in Pleasanton to ever lure a strong Saturday-Sunday crowd.

How do you eventually get such stores downtown? Here’s a hint. It has nothing to do with bulbs, pavers, one-way streets, or reducing traffic congestion. It has everything to do with creating a sense of place.

In the first 100 years of downtown’s existence - even when it was on the wane in the late 1990s – it still held legitimacy to a degree as a trade center. The coming of Wal-Mart to Manteca did not kill off downtown. The old school retailers were doing a good job of that. The tastes of many residents were changing. A prime example were the two department stores that steadfastly refused to carry Docker-style pants and stuck to traditional Levis and Lee denim and a small section of slacks. Was their service good? Yes. Was their selection changing with the times? No. Had Tipton’s taken the same tact they too would have perished. Instead they adjusted to the changing demographics of Manteca without forgetting their loyal customer base. They stand today despite having two box-style office supply businesses plus competition from Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target and drug stores.

City Manager Steve Pinkerton is absolutely on target when he suggests the city should look at redevelopment along Center Street and around the heart of the city to bring in more residential projects – including those with retail on the first floor and housing on the second such as you’d find in downtown San Jose or in the proposed River Islands at Lathrop town square. It is easier to have garden or sidewalk-style seating like you find outside of restaurants in Lodi and Pleasanton along Center Street than in the myopic version of downtown consisting of the same six blocks depicted in the Crossroads 1917 mural on the side of Century Furniture.

The only problem with Pinkerton’s vision is that it will take one heck of a long time to get there.

Meanwhile, downtown could simple wilt away into insignificance waiting for the ultimate makeover.

The solution is to make downtown a destination. The farmers market is a start. Other events are needed such as art shows, wine strolls mini concerts, perhaps organizing a store front live theater group, and other leisure style events. Ultimately, you should get enough momentum going that when the economy picks up people will try their hand at places like the shuttered Tea-liciuous once again or be inspired to open specialty stores. That, in turn, could bring more restaurants and low-key entertainment venues that aren’t your old-style bar and brawl ventures.

Forming a business improvement district with property owners taxing themselves to find a way to make such events happen is a key step.

However, the BID will go nowhere without true will. That means people have to come to grips that Manteca’s central district is indeed much larger – perhaps as far north as Alameda Street and to Fremont or Powers on the east and perhaps beyond the railroad tracks.

It also means there must be policies put in place that encourage higher densities as well as suspend the normal rules that would hamper opening more restaurants and other concerns.

Manteca is at 65,000 on its way eventually to 120,000.

The center of the city will fade away to insignificance if steps aren’t taken now to transform it into a destination for Manteca’s residents as well as those is nearby communities.