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Is Ronald McDonald smarter than Manteca’s civic leaders?
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Manteca has five McDonald’s restaurants and one public library. Mas’ood Cajee believes that the observation has a lot to do with Manteca’s future.

Cajee is a dentist by profession and a library advocate by passion.

Actually the latter is a misnomer. Cajee is not a library advocate. He’s an advocate for “hubs of lifelong learning.” Books, which are a part of the equation, aren’t the driving force behind modern libraries that have helped fuel the economies of tech-savvy cities such as San Jose and Seattle with big dollar jobs everyone seems to covet. It isn’t by accident cities that have much sought after amenities and an abundance of head of household jobs had the correct answer to the question asked by Manteca Unified School District Superintendent Clark Burke: “Are libraries a place to access information or to have a collection of books?”

China has answered that question as well and is now breathing down the neck of the United States in their quest to become the world’s leader in technology.

Masood looks to Shenzen — a teeming city if 12.5 million in China — as a place where the answer can be found.  

Back in 1980 Shenzen was a town of 20,000 — about the same size of Manteca 39 year ago — across the river from Hong Kong. China that year designated Shenzen as the country’s first special economic zone. China built the city using a template that today has turned it into a rival to California’s Silicon Valley with a population of 12.5 million. Key to that template is a library system that boasts 627 libraries in the city as of the end of 2016 with the main library covering 533,000 square feet or a space the size of the Ford Motor Small Parts Distribution Center in Manteca’s Spreckels Park.

Economic success comes from an environment — read that a city — that develops facilities that foster lifelong learning. 

In case you haven’t noticed a library is currently in the proverbial cellar when it comes to civic priorities in Manteca. That could help explain Manteca’s lack of success at getting a piece of the high tech economic pie that is enriched with high paying economic returns topped with $60 to $90 an hour jobs instead of just the crusts.

Not knocking crusts as Amazon is now San Joaquin County’s largest private sector employer with warehouse jobs at six distribution operations typically ranging from $14 to $20 an hour, but if you hunger for all the amenities that many in Manteca say they do, you need a population base that can afford to pay the taxes and spend the money to build and support them.

Cajee pops the balloon that many have that Manteca can one day get Google to expand here. He asked a Google manager who lives in Manteca and happens to be a patient whether that was a possibility to. The answer essentially was no way would Google expand here but you could get the Google style paychecks locally if the community was able to create an environment that fostered learning and entrepreneurship by encouraging young people to innovate and create new products and services.

The Googles, Apples, Amazons, and Microsofts of the world are growing today not as much by their own innovation as they are from buying others’ innovations. It may not get Google to shift jobs here but it creates the potential a startup could be bought and left in place to rapidly accelerate the creation of well-paying jobs locally.

The libraries that help accomplish this aren’t book depositories with a few computers. They are thriving learning centers with lecture hall and conference room style meeting places that are booked with seminars, lectures and workshops. There are maker spaces where library patrons don’t sit quietly but instead use knowledge gleaned from the library while collaborating with others to innovate and make things. Some even boast small scale performing arts theaters and lending services that extend into power tools, sewing machines, and such.

It’s all about learning, sharing knowledge, and creating an atmosphere that allows both to happen.

The 1950s view of libraries many of us have is a bit archaic. While they still get kids who use them hooked on learning and reading and are a treasure trove for recreational reading, they have expanded in their mission to help educate adults — specifically those who can’t read or aren’t educated so they can have a better life. The expansion of libraries in communities where elected leaders astutely grasped the foundation a vibrant library system can have for the economic well-being of cities in the 21st century is what is helping plant and grow the seeds that are driving the development of well-paying jobs.

To those who say libraries are irrelevant or dead take a drive to the San Jose main library. It’s teeming on Saturdays with school kids — including teens — as well as their parents who already have those coveted $60 to $90 an hour jobs. San Jose was the first Shenzen.

Now let’s go back to McDonald’s for a second.

Cajee poses a question: Are there more McDonald’s or public libraries in the United States?

You might be surprised to learn its libraries.

The most successful fast food chain the world has ever known and the most successful civic institution the world has ever known have the same rule of thumb for locating a restaurant or library to serve every 15,000 to 20,000 people in urban density settings. That said places smaller than that such as Linden or Escalon have public libraries but no McDonald’s.

Using numbers that are several years old, Cajee points out how priorities in cities like Manteca and Tracy that are commuter strongholds may be cementing their status of not being the strongest economic juggernaut they could possibly be. The two cities spend about $15 per capita on library services opposed to the national average of $51. But for recreation services they spend an average of $99 while the national average is $78. While that might be a bit like comparing sweet potatoes with baking potatoes given the lower cost of living in many places elsewhere in this country there is no doubt funding for the Manteca Library is in the basement when compared to what other California cities invest per capita into libraries.

The correlation between education as well as vibrant ongoing learning and economic and personal well-being is virtually indisputable.

From Cajee’s perspective Manteca should have five libraries — a main library and four branch libraries. The goal is to create combined neighborhood learning and community centers that can be easily accessed alone for more intense use.

Back in 2002 Manteca was pushing for a new 55,000 plus square-foot library to replace the current library first built in 1962 and expanded in 1978 to ultimately accommodate a population of 32,000. That’s 50,000 less residents than Manteca has today.

Teaming up with Manteca Unified to expand/build such libraries on existing campuses will allow them to be spread about and easy to access without requiring new infrastructure such as parking lots or investing in duplicate facilities. 

As for a main library, the plan advanced in 2002 carried a $32 million price tag that would easily be $50 million today. Instead of going for a grand statement or a new building there are options available such as the vacant 107,489-square-foot Kmart building on Northgate Drive that could be bought and remodeled using false ceiling and non-load bearing walls.

Andrew Carnegie nailed it more than 150 years ago — a community gathering place for ongoing learning will help all boats rise. He happened to call such places libraries.