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Emerging economic, cultural, & societal force of the South San Joaquin County
tracy triangle
Tracy — whose city motto is “Think Inside the Triangle” given it is in a triangle bordered by Interstate 205 to the north, Interstate 5 to the east, and Interstate 580 to the southwest — is two years or so away from 100,000 residents. Tracy’s population in 1950 was 8,410. For comparison Escalon’s population today is 7,590.

There is a disconnect between the South County — think Manteca, Lathrop, Ripon, Tracy, Escalon, and Mountain House — and the rest of San Joaquin County as defined by Stockton and Lodi.

It hasn’t always been that way. A century ago it was the norm for people in the outlying areas to travel to Stockton not only for shopping beyond basic daily staples and to seek advanced medical care beyond what a general practitioner can provide, but even for teens to secure a high school education.

Patterns changed over the decades as communities grew and the automobile became more prevalent. Not only did towns like Manteca and Tracy get more amenities in terms of shopping and services, but Modesto became a bigger draw for many South County consumers as a non-day-to-day shopping hub.

It wasn’t unusual 30 years ago that most people in Manteca wouldn’t exactly sneer at the idea of going to Stockton other than required government business or medical care, but they viewed the Sunrise Port city as essentially non-existent.

It also did not help that there was a much closer relationship between Stockton and Lodi. It was kind of natural given once upon a time they were the two largest cities in the county. The South County “cities” were towns of under 10,000 people. Lathrop wasn’t incorporated and Mountain House didn’t exist. Tracy and Manteca have long since left Lodi in the proverbial dust when it comes to growth.

That led to the reality — and not just the perception — that Lodi and Stockton controlled and dominated San Joaquin County government politics.

Newcomers that have come primarily from the Bay Area over the years have an even bigger disconnect.

Not only was living in the Northern San Joaquin Valley a new concept for most, but given the majority worked in the Bay Area and spent extensive amounts of time commuting immersing themselves into offerings beyond the southern end of the county whether it was cultural, entertainment, shopping or otherwise just wasn’t happening.

And when they did opt to shop in the valley beyond typical weekly needs, if it wasn’t a stop along the commute or near where they worked in the Bay Area they opted for Modesto.

The reason had to do with Stockton’s negative reputation over the years earned by its crime rate and the fact its biggest warts were in high profile locales visible along freeways.

Modesto, by contrast, has most of its rough spots tucked away from the freeway. And for the record, its crime rate is not much different than Stockton’s.

None of this is meant it besmirch either city. A huge case can be made that in non-pandemic times the entertainment options — think Gallo Center and such in Modesto and a multitude of cultural/sports institutions in Stockton such as the Haggin Museum, Stockton Civic Theatre, Bob Hope Theatre, Stockton Arena, Webber Point, UOP, and Banner Island Ballpark to name a few — makes living within a 20 to 30 minute drive of both Stockton and Modesto a huge plus.

And as far as shopping and dining goes, downtown Modesto is impressive for the young adult nightlife while Stockton’s dining and specialty shopping options are a couple of notches higher.

In recent years a new pattern is starting to emerge.

And it has everything to do with Tracy being a year or two from breaching 100,000 people with Manteca not far behind, Lathrop on a moon shot projectory boosted by the unique mega-planned community known as River Islands, and Ripon working not to deviate from a small town feel that lures those from nearby communities to partake in their downtown and other charms.

Most basic shopping and dining options most people seem attracted to now exist in Tracy and Manteca or are on their way along with a fairly strong mixture of independent shopping options. It is true Manteca or Lathrop may not have what Tracy does but the reverse is also true. People from Tracy shop at Kohl’s as well as Bass Pro among others and may soon add Living Spaces. Tracy has Texas Roadhouse and other coveted chain options Manteca-Lathrop doesn’t along with their own unique dining options.

Twenty minutes separates the two cities. Combine the population of Manteca, Lathrop, Tracy and Mountain House and you have 240,000 residents. That is a strong pool that is able to support a lot of endeavors and even more in the future.

It may not be in the level of the Bay Area but it is there and growing.

And arguably no two communities in the region are as well connected as Manteca-Lathrop. Within 30 minutes thanks to the muscular buying power and sheer number of consumers for goods and entertainment of 600,000 people you can find almost everything you could want or need in Stockton, Modesto, Tracy, Ripon, Manteca, and Lathrop.

You are now seeing more people stay within the South County when it comes to shopping and dining. And while there are those that will never say anything good about the valley, more and more people are finding pursuits they enjoy here.

The South County is clearly coming into its own. And while it is a long way from replicating cultural options elsewhere, before the pandemic the trend was clear.

A growing number of South County residents were accessing the Gallo Center for the Performing Arts, Stockton Arena, Banner Island Ball Park, Stockton Symphony concerts at Atherton Auditorium and much more.

There will be a time in the not too distance future where the population of the South County will equal or surpass that of Stockton.

But instead of that leading to a power struggle of sorts, it is more likely to boost the metropolitan style offerings of Stockton that can be built on the synergy of a large and even more diverse population base.

What is good for Stockton as it being the 900-pound gorilla has also been good for the rest of the county. That’s because most of the world knows about Stockton and a bit less or nothing about Tracy, Manteca, Lathrop, and Ripon. Whenever Stockton gets a black eye, part of it rubs off on its neighbors by association.

That was never truer than during the early days of the housing recovery in the mortgage meltdown. It was when big banks and mortgage companies ignored local nuances and local experts and priced everything they had for foreclosure in Tracy, Manteca, and Lathrop, as if it were property in Stockton that became the largest city in the United States to ever file for bankruptcy until Detroit grabbed the title a year later in 2013. That drove down prices even more in the non-Stockton cities.

A better Stockton lifts us all.

By contrast a more robust South County will also lift Stockton.

It literally growing more likely day by day the San Joaquin County of the future will be driven by the South County as it cements its role as the major support community — in terms of workforce and distribution centers — to fuel Bay Area economic growth in the 21st century.


 This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at