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Qualex: A developing concern that exposed city government’s shortfalls
qualex site
Qualex back in the Dark Ages processed film at 555 Industrial Park Drive.

Your memories could have been made in Manteca years ago even if you never lived here, only whizzed by on the 120 Bypass headed for the Bay Area, or even if you never stepped a foot into the city.

Well, “made” isn’t as precise as “processed”.

Manteca is where Eastman Kodak and Fuqua Industries opted to locate one of their 53 photo processing labs. The joint venture launched in 1988 eventually became a wholly owned subsidiary of Kodak in 1994.

The photo processing business was known as Qualex. And next to Indy Electronics-turned-Alphatec-turned-Turnkey Solutions it was the biggest employer in the Manteca Industrial Park.

Its name is still bantered around today in a way no one back in the late 1980s could have imagined when Qualex opened their state-of-the-art facility that processed rolls of film dropped off at photo finishing counters in supermarkets and drug stores or at drive-thru kiosks such as Fotomat and returned several days later to pick up.

If you have no idea what a Fotomat or a drive-thru kiosk are think “That 70’s Show” and the place Hyde worked that was owned by Leo. If you still don’t get it, Eric Forman’s dad Red wouldn’t hesitate to tell you what he thinks of your intellectual abilities.

The Qualex name has lived on in Manteca after the fateful decision of the Manteca City Council sitting as the Manteca Redevelopment Agency commissioners to buy the Qualex property at 555 Industrial Park for $3.6 million in 2006 two years after it was closed.

Do not laugh too loud but the city bought it to save money.

The City Council back in 2001 determined Manteca had outgrown its police station. Some personnel were literally using converted supply rooms. The building was as secure as a hot dog stand in South Stockton.

They also believed city hall needed more space although it wasn’t as critical as the police needs.

The council agreed new facilities were needed but choked on price estimates to reconfigure the campus at 1001 West Center Street that involved constructing several multi-story buildings. They simply could not stomach the $35 million price tag.

So they gave staff their marching orders: Find a way to build a new municipal police station and not revamp city hall. And do so as inexpensive as possible.

This is when staff researched existing buildings on the assumption it would be cheaper to remodel than buy raw ground and build from scratch.

When Qualex shuttered 31 of its 53 processing plants in 2004, the public works staff saw it as an opportunity. At 57,000 square feet it was more than double the police facility at 1001 W. Center St. Not only did it have room to expand, but there was even talk of including an indoor firing range.

The location hit high marks of being more centrally located meaning better overall response times if additional personnel at the department had to be dispatched into the field.

The assumption was after everything was said and done, the city could have a new police station to serve Manteca for 30 years or so for $11 million or roughly $2 million to $3 million less than a structure built from the ground up.

The city dumped RDA money into retrofitting the structure to tougher earthquake standards required for public safety buildings. They even significant roof upgrades.

Meanwhile the council and senior management where hemming and hawing about whether to finish the project. So what was the big concern? They didn’t like the cost even though it penciled out as being less expensive.

It was during the time the city was looking for a new home for law enforcement offices the need for a secured fenced in parking lot became critical for the police station following several security issues that could have turned out bad.

The council was convinced to go ahead with parking lot improvements on the corner of Cherry Lane and Center Street.

The decision drew some pushback from the community as it involved removing several large trees. It also became a minor issue in an election cycle when challengers argued it was a waste of money given the city had a timeline to be in a new police station within two to three years.

The council’s return volley — a secured parking lot would still be needed for municipal vehicles to handle growth and the eventually conversion of the police station info additional city offices.

While Manteca was taking its sweet time due to anxiety over the price, the council was scared straight out of doing the project.

That’s because the California Legislature in the middle of the city waddling in indecision adopted a requirement that new police stations that had holding cells were required to have full-time jailer staffing. That, at the time, translated into $240,000 a year in additional staff.

Fifteen years after the city’s big promise was made and the decision was made to do the project on the cheap and $5 million plus in tax dollars dumped into the Qualex site for a police station, there is nothing to show for it.

Yes, the city will likely realize $200,000 or so from the sale of the Qualex property as proceeds from a sale to the Manteca Unified School District, or a private concern if that deal doesn’t go through, is required by law to be split between the 11 locate taxing agencies on a prorated basis.

Some at the city have the audacity to contend the $5 million squandered on a half-hearted effort conducted at the speed of a snail to secure a new police station wasn’t technically real city money. But it was money a large share of Manteca property owners swept into the RDA had their tax dollars diverted from paying for day-to-day municipal services such as police, fire, and streets to bankroll the RDA. The reality is thousands of Manteca property owners have more than 15 years to go to retire the outstanding RDA bonds.

To sum it up, $5 million plus wishy-washy slow moving city leadership equals no new police station while flushing $4.8 million down the toilet.

Digital cameras and smartphones may have done in Qualex.

But indecisiveness, confusing financial conservatism with being cheap, and the inability to operate a more than a crawl has made the city’s ownership of the former Qualex property less valuable of an asset to Manteca taxpayers than owning a trainload of 110 Instamatic film cartridges.

At least you could recover silver from the film. The closest thing to a precious metal that the city will recover from Qualex is fool’s gold.

As for the police department, it did get at least something to address some of its needs. It now has an evidence shortage facility that is 100 times more secure than the lobby and the rest of the police station.


This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at