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New Library Park helps set up downtowns game
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Downtown’s future - and its past glory - is being celebrated today.

The temporary construction fences will come down around the Library Park expansion. A few speeches and the over-sized gazebo complete with a 75-seat amphitheatre along with a grassy area, play equipment, unique baseball-themed benches, along with future sites of murals depicting Manteca’s social fabric will officially be open for public use. They are a complement to other improvements - such as the interactive water feature already in use.

Other cities try to transform their downtowns by erecting massive buildings in private-redevelopment agency partnerships. Manteca went a different route. They gave downtown a heart and soul.

Long before it was Library Park and a grove of stately sycamore trees creating an oasis from the valley sun, it was where the Manteca boys of summer pursued the great American pastime of baseball. It was back when the trains brought the mail to the Southern Pacific Railroad depot in plain view just over the outfield fence. Manteca was much smaller then - a couple thousand of souls.

When the “boys” took on opponents from other valley towns such as Escalon, Turlock, Tracy, Patterson, and Stockton most folks would drop what they were doing and head out to the ballpark.

It was a social gathering as much as it was about community pride.

Like all things of a simpler time, it would not last forever. Eventually world war came again. Things were different afterwards. Eventually progress started transforming downtown. Manteca grew. About the time the first modern strip center appeared on North Main Street and Alameda, the days of the ball park were numbered. It was also the start of the beginning of the end of downtown as being Manteca’s main commerce hub.

Eventually the old park was torn down and the library broke ground in 1961.

Library Park never enjoyed the same glory as the ball park. Much of it had to do with Manteca growing as well as adding other community gathering points. First at Lincoln Park and then Northgate Park.

Modern stores such as Low’s Rancho Market and Big Boy killed off the small groceries downtown. The automobile was changing shopping habits. New stores with parking lots were changing how Manteca shopped and socialized. It made it easier to go to Stockton and Modesto for clothing and other consumer goods as well as for entertainment.

Downtown changed accordingly.

Now in 2011 downtown and Manteca are at crossroads. The Great Recession has proven a challenge for retailers and service orientated businesses. Manteca, meanwhile, is at the cusp of 70,000 people on its way to becoming a city of 100,000-plus in the next 20 years or so.

And as odd as it may seem with the siren song of The Promenade Shops at Orchard Valley and Big League Dreams going strong, downtown may finally be in a position to regain strength as an economic force.

It will never topple Walmart, Target, Kmart, Staples, Costco, Kohl’s et al. It will, though, capitalize on a sense of being that Library Park turned into a community plaza along with the Tidewater street motif and murals have helped create.

You don’t need a consultant to tell you changes are in the wind. Just listen to the people who sincerely missed having the farmers market at Library Park. Orchard Valley is nice but it isn’t home.

Downtown is Manteca.

That doesn’t mean retail as some envision it will thrive here save for a few traditional specialty shops that got the big guys beat hands down on service, unique selection and even price. (Don’t knock low overhead store space.)

As more people fall in love with downtown, it will shed the last of its traditional retail and service-orientated cocoon and create a butterfly of destination ventures from specialty shops and additional dining to entertainment and such.

It has happened to other towns such a Pleasanton, Livermore, and Lodi going from the awkward stage of large town to little city status that understood downtowns and Walmart aren’t interchangeable.

It was the right choice to ditch the proposed Manteca arch over South Main Street near Moffat and go with expanding Library Park instead.

And for those folks who can’t resist not talking about traffic flow and downtown in the same breath, it doesn’t matter how good your arteries are if your heart is ready to die.

It was a long time in coming but an expanded Library Park will definitely step up downtown’s game when it comes to attracting more people and ultimately more consumer dollars.