This is not a rhetorical question: Who will determine the future of downtown Manteca — the homeless or the housed residents of the city?
Manteca has invested well over $16 million into downtown Manteca during the last 16 years. That includes $11 million for a transit center/community gathering place, $1.5 million fur a Library Park expansion and renovation, and over $4 million on streetscape (pseudo old-fashion light standards, bench, two mini-plazas, and traffic signals) along with pavers.
Two points need to be made real clear. The first: Downtown is not failing. It may not be living up to its potential but it is clearly enjoying a degree of success.
There are four furniture stores, seven financial institutions, several specialty markets, niche retail, a smattering of dining options and more.
In the heart of it all an investor is dropping serious money prepping the old El Rey Theatre and former Kelly Brothers Brewing Co. & Brickyard Oven Restaurant as a grand events center.
The second point: Perceptions can — and often do — alter reality.
There is little doubt the Manteca Police are doing a Herculean job dealing with the homeless given the laws that restrain them. That goes from the humanitarian effort to get them off the streets permanently that is by far the most effectively long-term solution to try and resolve the homeless problem to dealing with lawless acts.
Anyone who believes the homeless issue hasn’t given downtown — or at least key parts of the central district — a bad reputation are good prospects for membership in the Flat Earth Society.
It doesn’t matter that there hasn’t been an incident of significant degree involving the homeless in downtown Manteca for years to warrant a lead story on the 5 o’clock news. The die has been cast. Library Park has a reputation that it can’t shake in the minds of many people. Yes the homeless have a “right” to linger in Library Park during events. For the record, most of the time they keep their distance.
Just a reminder to residents and a recap for those at city hall who weren’t in on the original decisions for an expanded and upgraded Library Park as well as the transit center with a robust community room and outdoor plazas. They were envisioned as community gathering spots to bring more vibrancy to downtown, be a source of pride, and to kindle private sector investment into the central district.
So what has happen at Library Park? Two groups have pulled farmers markets out of Library Park. The Arts in the Park celebration for kids has fled. There is less use of the playground equipment that doubled with the expansion than there was before it took place. Weddings and other private social events that were at least once a month occurrences haven’t happened for years. The gazebo stage complete with amphitheater style seating gets significantly less use for a low key community than the original gazebo replaced.
These were all things that community members said they wanted. The theory — that worked in other communities — was that as downtown became more and more of a community gathering place the investment and support of trendy dining and entertainment spots would follow.
So why hasn’t the vision for downtown taken off in the past 16 years, a time period that the city has added almost 30,000 residents?
It’s not absentee landlords that could care less or believe that their vacant spaces should command the same rent per square foot as store space near Kohl’s. And it’s actually not the homeless per se that hang around creating serious image problems that turn people off. It is the perception of homeless ills and other hyped up woes that worsen the gut of the problem — a lack of a strategy and execution by the city in a working partnership not just with downtown concerns but the community to leverage $16.5 million in taxpayer investments.
Downtown is not a rathole but if somebody doesn’t put even a 10th of the energy the city spent securing an indoor water park resort it will eventually become a rathole.
The experts — consultants who simply parrot success stories in other communities — and Manteca Police that deal with the day-to-day homeless issues have the same answer. The more use downtown gets the more invisible the homeless will become.
The city has long given up on doing much more than the minimum when it comes to maintenance. The paver crosswalks are completely indistinguishable from the street asphalt these days. You’ve got to ask yourself why the city wasted the money in the first place.
Christmas in the Park and Music and Market in the Park won’t be taking place anymore at Library Park. They are moving to Woodward Park.
If that isn’t the proverbial canary keeling over in the coal mine then I don’t know what is. The backers of the events are not giving up on downtown as much as after a decade of struggling realize the perception that the homeless have created for downtown is failing to draw the community to the heart of Manteca to gather with others. They will still do their banking, furniture buying, get their hair done and such downtown as the homeless are throughout the community in other commercial areas as well. But it is a different story when they want to attend a community event.
So what can the city and community do?
They can start by trying to at least leverage the $16.5 million investment instead of believing it will magically do the trick.
For those that argue the city shouldn’t take a lead role because they don’t have skin in the game, I beg to differ. They are the biggest property owner and have the most on the line — the transit center, Library Park, the library and tennis courts are all critical to the community. They represent at least $30 million worth of investment if they had to be replicated elsewhere.
The best way to get people to fall in love with the idea of downtown as a gathering place is to fully utilize the strongest card the city holds — the transit center.
The intent when the design was selected was to make a statement with the architecture. The city did that in one of the highest profile locations in the city. They also spent almost a third more than they needed for a basic transit center by adding the community room, clock tower and expansive plaza.
It is on that plaza where a farmers market should take place. Given the endless evenings during the week the community room goes unused, the city working with community groups and the school district could come up with periodic community events through a month such as concerts, art shows, or even science fairs showcasing youth. Make this ground central for car shows.
When the ACE trains do start stopping such uses wouldn’t be a conflict. The additional parking ACE needs would dovetail in well for weekend gatherings or early evening weekday events that would start after the first several afternoon commute trains have helped thin the parking lots. Given those riders are on the first trains to depart the parking spaces that will be available for the start of events will be the closest to the building.
Such events would need an organizer and — to make it work and certainly to get it established — minimal or no fees. There would need to be city staff on site.
Rest assured whatever money the city needs to help the transit center as a gathering place to reach its potential will be to make sure the original $11 million investment starts paying dividends.
Of course everyone could either keep pointing finger or wait for the secular downtown equivalent of the rapture to miraculously occur.