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Land of Oz & downtown Manteca
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Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to approach downtown Manteca a bit differently.
I get all the formula plans. The tried and true of property maintenance enforcement when it comes to absentee landlords that don’t give a rat’s behind is a given.
We also need to come to grips with reality. Downtown is neither dead nor dying. It is a viable retail and service center with five furniture stores, five financial institutions — six if you include just beyond North Street — and a host of other concerns. Yes there are vacant spaces but they are vacant for very specific reasons such as building conditions or landlords who aren’t exactly eager to rent for a variety of reasons.
What downtown is not is what a lot of people want it to be — a gathering place with a mixture of culture, entertainment, additional dining opportunities, and social activities.
Quite frankly there isn’t the traffic in terms of people who think of downtown Manteca as a place to enjoy an evening meal or kick back and enjoy one’s self to convince too many people to risk plopping down $100,000 to $250,000 to open the type of dining experiences many of us say we want.
This is a question of what comes first — the chicken or the egg — or in downtown Manteca’s case additional foot traffic or stepped up private sector investment.
If you explore what other cities with vibrant downtowns have you will find a common thread of organized events designed to lure people.
Yes, Manteca has the street fair and the Pumpkin Fair but those are the type of events that put you on the map, so to speak, to explore the charms and attractions a downtown offers in a Cliff’s Notes fashion. You need to get them to come back to drop some jack in restaurants and stores and make downtown part of their entertainment routine.
The Music and Market that the Manteca Chamber stages in the summer is a start.  A lot of successful downtowns that function as community destinations have farmers markets but they have a lot more. They run the gamut from mid-week concerts, art shows, and community organization events to live performances.
If downtown gets a steady stream of people on a constant basis after the furniture stores, banks, and other retailers close for the day two things are likely to happen. It will reduce the presence of homeless individuals plus it will get people to notice that there is a foot traffic that can capitalize on.
This is not conjecture. Homeless issues in downtowns up and down the valley become invisible, so to speak, when downtowns are buzzing with activity. And the more people you have venturing downtown on a regular basis, the more appealing it becomes for people that want to open a business.
There isn’t much going on in downtown after 6 p.m. save for a bar or two and a handful of dining establishments.
Night traffic — save for special events at the MRPS, FESM, and Legion halls — has been non-existent since Kelly Brothers Brewing Co. & Brickyard Oven Restaurant closed seven years ago.
So how can you jumpstart downtown’s foot traffic while at the same time literally working on structural issues by going after property owners that aren’t getting with the game?
You take one step at a time. The city has invested almost $10 million to create or enhance gathering places downtown — the Manteca Transit Center purposely designed with a community room as well as an open outdoor courtyard and the expanded and upgraded Library Park.
Given this is not just a wish of downtown merchants for downtown to be a gathering place and the fact they’re not likely to form an assessment district anytime soon, it would makes sense for the city working with perhaps the Manteca Chamber of Commerce — given the Manteca Convention & Visitors Bureau is a lost cause — the Manteca Unified School District, and groups like the Mayors Committee for the Arts to roll out some low-key events.
Once a month mid-week concerts in the park (or inside the transit center in inclement weather) could take place on perhaps Wednesdays showcasing music program groups from the three high schools. There could be once a month art shows mid-week at the transit center. Such offerings could have vendors or do without. The idea is to get people downtown. And if it doesn’t pay big dividends in the short run it will help nourish cultural and activities in a city that has well over $500,000 invested in public art in the downtown district in the form of murals.
The Parks & Recreation Department might be able to offer programs at the transit center on week nights or late afternoons on days where there is no public use of the facility.
A lot of money has been invested in downtown by the city. It behooves the community to make sure the investment pays dividends whether it is pumping new life into downtown or strengthening the cultural fabric of Manteca.
The city might explore a partnership with a non-profit such as the chamber that in exchange for $1 a month rent they  could handle transit and recreation inquiries as well as expand into an honest-to-goodness visitors’ bureau role that Manteca sorely lacks. Given the saving on rent they could probably swing a part-time position.
Downtown in a way is a Wizard of Oz situation. All of the things that people say they want are right in front of everyone. All we have to do is recognize what we have and put it to work.