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Is Mantecas downtown dying? Again?
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In two years Manteca as an incorporated city will turn 100.
The odds are the number of residents will hit 78,000.
If all goes well, what could be the largest hotel in the entire Great Central Valley — a 500-room venue with the largest indoor waterpark on the West Coast and the biggest conference center in the Northern San Joaquin Valley — will be nearing the end of construction.
The city’s garbage trucks will be fueled by food waste.
Against that backdrop is a nagging question: Can downtown Manteca be saved?
It seems like such an absurd question given this is a city that found a way to turn a shuttered sugar beet processing factory that had the real potential of becoming 362 acres of cancerous blight into the economic juggernaut known as Spreckels Park. Manteca also managed to have the savvy to lure Bass Pro Shops, appeal to Del Webb communities, and have the foresight to see the advantage of a private-public partnership in the form of Big League Dreams.
But then again, maybe the question is absurd.
A walking trip through downtown — defined tightly as nine or so blocks — on early Wednesday didn’t exactly leave an impression of impending doom.
You could not find a parking space on Maple Avenue while spaces were hard to come by in parking lots just off the street. Even without trees yet budding, the one-way street lined with shops ranging from a bakery and party supply store to the venerable Tipton’s Stationary & Gifts to a spa, beauty salons, frame shop, and more was pleasant and appealing. Despite the somewhat blustery weather a couple was making use of benches in the plaza next to the Rotary mural.
Center Street had a steady flow traffic with shop spaces filled although a furniture store is poised to move to a new location. There is a vacancy on North Main but stores such as Tammy’s Baby Shoppe, Formal Connection, and Furniture Pros seem to be doing well enough.
The four block stretch of Yosemite Avenue where all of downtown’s 10 vacant storefronts are located as well as the boarded up burned-out Sycamore Arms building was bustling although mostly with traffic. Even so you can find a list of business enjoying degrees of success — American Furniture, Century Furniture, Tipton’s, Bedquarters, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, Janis Music, J&J Printing, Athens Burgers, bakeries, specialty food stores and more.
More businesses such as the Hospice Hope Chest Community Store, Kelly Moore Paints, Los Amigos Tire, and Don’s Mobile Glass can be found on side streets.
Then there are the murals, expanded Library Park that is a town square in the best tradition, the transit station, end-of-the-19th century street fixtures, the library, and the Tidewater Bike Path.
Rumors, as Mark Twain might say, of downtown Manteca’s demise are greatly exaggerated.
Downtown is no longer the king of retail and dining in Manteca — it hasn’t been for at least 30 years. Nor is downtown Manteca anywhere near its proverbial last leg.
That’s not to say downtown couldn’t be more vibrant.
It’s just that you don’t see any hell holes — or an ideal downtown redo — in this neck of the world with six banks and credit unions.
Nor do you see blighted downtowns or trendy destination downtowns that have the second heaviest traveled city street and the sixth heaviest traveled thoroughfare crossing each other as is the case in Manteca.
Downtown, after almost a century, is still at the center of Manteca.
Manteca is Manteca. It isn’t Livermore. It isn’t Pleasanton and it isn’t Lodi.
Maybe instead of regurgitating formulas used elsewhere to create a template for future private sector investment in downtown Manteca to the tune of handing a consultant ultimately $700,000, the city might be wise to do a couple of things first.
uAsk the financial institutions, the furniture stores, the beauty salons, the other retailers and business owners why they haven’t pulled up stakes.
uFind out if any absentee landlord that treats downtown simply as a rent cash cow would ever consider selling to another investor. If so, perhaps a marriage broker approach would be more effective than the city spending $700,000 to essentially draft a pre-nuptial agreement to see if you can entice the groom (absentee landlords) into getting hitched with the bride (tenants) in a marriage not of convenience but one that builds a vibrant life.
uListen to the current business people as well as others who tried to make a go of it and see what impediments the city inadvertently placed in their way.
You can have all the lovefests you want with planners and consultants but it doesn’t ignore the basic fact the city didn’t listen to the boots on the ground for years. One example was the draconian parking requirements that essentially grandfathered in only existing business uses that was choking downtown economic activity. It wasn’t until that chain was cut off that a significant amount of activity started in the downtown area after slowly dropping off from the early 1990s.
There are a lot of issues in downtown ranging from traffic and the homeless to irresponsible absentee landlords. There is also a lot of promise.
But before Manteca has its fifth — or is it sixth — whirlwind romance with another consulting firm that paints a beautiful future for downtown and then waltzes off with their satchel stuffed with cash leaving downtown and Manteca wandering around aimlessly, the suitors need to know what they want. If the city and the businesses aren’t on the same page from the get go there is no way the grasp that absentee landlords have on some parts of downtown will ever weaken.