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Reports concerning downtown Manteca’s pending demise are greatly exaggerated
downtown sunset

Downtown Manteca needs to just hurry up and die.

I’ve been in Manteca now for going on 29 years and each and every year it seems like half of the town is bemoaning the fact downtown is dying. And depending on whom you talk to downtown has been in a death spiral even longer than that. Some say since the mid-1980s, others the late 1970s. Downtown Manteca has had a longer death than most trendy retailers and restaurants chains have had a life during the past 20 years.

Back in 1990 when Walmart and Mervyn’s opened — (remember Mervyn’s?) — the Manteca Greek Chorus odds makers gave downtown five years tops before it became a  boarded up ghost district.

A great clamor went up that the city had to do something.

So the city did what the city is best at doing — they hired a consultant.

Some $70,000 later Manteca had its fourth plan since the 1960s to transform six or so blocks of the core of downtown into a clone of what worked in other cities. The biggest thing from that effort to help downtown — and I’m not making this up — was to ban left turns from southbound Main Street to eastbound Yosemite Avenue. And just like with every bright idea ever implemented for the 100 block of North Main Street the city several years later after half the town threatened a revolution undid the surefire remedy for traffic.

Then as the 21st century approached, the cry and the hue rose again. Downtown is dying! The city must do something!

They actually did something — or at least started to do so. The Vision 2020 Task Force was assembled to lay out a game plan for the type of Manteca community wide they’d like to see when Jan. 1, 2020 rolled around.

It is that effort that gave birth to the decorative downtown street lights and streetscape, pavers, pursing a transit center to double as a community center, facade upgrades in partnership with the city, the expansion and upgrade of Library Park, and the creation of two mini-plazas. It also inspired public art that led to the highly successful Manteca Mural Society effort.

The plan and the move to implement it prompted two brothers from Modesto to convert the burned out shell of the El Rey Theatre that sat bordered up for a quarter of a century as soaring cancer sore just a half a block from the Yosemite and Main intersection — the heart of Manteca — into a brewery and restaurant.

Kelly Brothers Brewery and Brickyard Oven Restaurant along with the Manteca Chamber of Commerce hosted the “party of the century” shortly after it opened on Dec. 31, 1999. A massive tent on Grant Street allowed 1,000 tickets to be sold.

After that sell out, the city in the following year started implementing the Vision 2020 inspired downtown plan that included everything previously mentioned.

Guess what happened? The follow through stopped.

Why? It was real simple. The forward motion stopped once again because downtown Manteca was all wrong based on what people contend they want. The naysayers ignored what was happening because downtown wasn’t turning into a clone of downtowns in Livermore, Pleasanton, Lodi and elsewhere.

Manteca had the wrong businesses downtown. They may have been referencing tattoo parlors and cigarette stores that seemed to be in every block at the time, but what they were really irked was the fact the solid and prosperous anchors weren’t trendy boutiques and restaurants oozing ambiance with classy sidewalk dining area secured be decorative fencing. Instead they were banks — seven to be exact — four furniture stores, and a host of successful ethnic markets and bakeries that were blue collar and not Yuppie inspired, as well as a boatload of offices and services such as hair stylists.

The answer, of course, was a must have business of the day. A Barnes & Nobles — dissatisfied citizens told the council — would transform downtown as would a Starbucks. Better yet, city leaders were told, trendy locally grown coffee shops would be even better.

The wise sages of the Manteca Greek Chorus kept repeating downtown had to compete with Walmart.

Downtown Manteca wasn’t even within a moonshot of a possibility for a Barnes & Nobles or even a Borders bookstore based on siting criteria for both firms. Also, if you have not noticed, downtown Manteca on a relative scale is more viable today than either retail book seller.

As for trendy coffee shops, downtown had several complete with the much sought after low-key entertainment and ambiance that lured customers to linger and sip. They went belly-up because the endless people that said they would support them, never really did.

Downtown competing with Walmart is the most laughable mantra ever uttered over the years. The only way downtown could ever compete with the likes of a Walmart is to bulldoze eight blocks, put in a huge parking lot, go for minimal ambiance, and jettison personal service. Then you’d have another cloned commercial area that looks no different than one million and one other commercial areas across the country.

Before we go on another wild — and expensive chase — to devise another plan to save downtown from death, why don’t we just finish what was started with Vision 2020?

We also need to stop having tunnel vision. Downtown Manteca is not just four blocks that has been around for the past century and is marred by a dozen problematic properties including second floor efficiency apartments.

Manteca’s Central District is really the city’s downtown. Take a look at what is going on along Main Street to Alameda as well as Yosemite to Powers.

As for those problematic properties, they’ve been the same ones that everyone has had issues with since 1991 and even farther back.

Downtown Manteca doesn’t need saving as much as it needs to be understood for what it is in terms of traffic and geographic limitations as well as the viable commerce that is going on. This is a place where a mortuary has been brought back to life as a trendy spa and where old-fashioned retail like Tipton’s as well as unique ventures such as German Glas Werks has prospered for decades. How many dying downtowns have seven financial institutions including two that joined the mix after people started writing downtown Manteca’s obituary.

There are rough spots and issues. At the same time Manteca is not a clone of Livermore or Pleasanton. If people don’t get that they need to stop thinking like conquering Roman invaders hell-bent on remaking the isle of England in their image. Downtown Manteca needs to be the best it can be and not have everyone trying to make it into something it is not given the simple fact if it was a hell-hole there would not be seven financial institutions with brick and mortar offices located there.

Let’s hope all of us can have as long and fairly healthy and reasonably prosperous lives that downtown Manteca has been having in its supposed death throes.