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Kelley Brothers: A textbook RDA project
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The first glance inside the boarded up El Rey in 1998 was a real eye opener.

The walls were covered with gang graffiti and obscenities. There were pigeons all over the place. There were also signs that the homeless had resided inside plus evidence of drug use and spent condoms.

This was all within a dozen or so yards of Yosemite Avenue and Main Street – the physical heart of the Family City.

It was a city staff-led inspection tour as council debate was starting whether the Manteca Redevelopment Agency should make a $250,000 below-market-rate loan to make a $1.4 million proposal to convert the burned out shell of the El Rey into a brewery and restaurant work.

One council member at the time equated the reduced interest rate to “corporate welfare.”

Yet it was anything but.

The city for years had been under pressure from downtown businesses – and the community – to do something about the El Rey that burned on Aug. 6, 1975 following the screening of “The Towering Inferno.” It was pure blight soaring three stories casting a long shadow over downtown and the city’s most recognized intersection.

The property owner had tried to get a private sector partnership to move forward with razing the building and replacing it with a multiple story office building. There were no takers.

Then in 1991 the council directed a study to be done to see what it would take for the city to buy the property at fair market and raze the building. The cost was pegged at $500,000 or twice the amount of money the Manteca RDA would ultimately loan to help make Kelley Brothers work.

The RDA investment got rid of blight, created jobs and sales tax, and pumped new life into the absolute oldest part of Manteca. It is a textbook case of what RDA was meant to do.

It did two other things. It gave newer residents – many who commute long-distance – a reason to come downtown in the evening or on weekends. It also gave Manteca a big and highly visible drawing card for out-of-town people.

It is ironic, in a way, that the two businesses most attuned to downtown’s future are located almost across from each other in the 100 block of East Yosemite – Kelley Brothers and German Glas Werks. Both are aimed at niches that the big guys can’t touch. Both also have a wide appeal and draw outside of Manteca’s city limits.

There are a number of downtown enterprises that at least meet the niche test such as Mexican bakeries and Mexican stores, chocolate shop, a bakery, music shop, and a few restaurants. What is needed is a strong mixture of restaurants and boutique or niche-style shopping,

The Great Recession isn’t the best time to launch such ventures but it is a good time to lay the ground work.  Manteca has two built-in regional draws – Bass Pro Shops that lured more than 2 million visitors last year and Big League Dreams that draws more than 400,000 a year.

Even without the outlet stores that will start opening later this year that is almost 2.5 million potential customers for Manteca’s central district.

What is needed is a way to attract them downtown.

That really should be a higher priority than continuing the 100 Year War over the landscaping bulbs.