Listen to Manteca Mayor Ben Cantu long enough and he’ll school you on the pitfalls of government on the cheap.
Council members like Gary Singh hear him loud and clear. But they also know firsthand — and by having their proverbial ear bent as they make their way around Manteca or interact on social media — that people don’t have a high appetite for new taxes but also want to see improvements in the community.
So what better way to move Manteca forward than to learn from Cantu’s on-the-fly history lessons and combine it with thinking by those who are not locked into traditional ways of thinking?
Toss in what might be a first for Manteca — and even other cities as well -— in the form of an intense collaborative approach to problem solving in the city manager’s office. That is instead of either the Lone Ranger management style or the more oracle-like approach that, while it relies on input, instead approaches every decision in the “Trumanesque” fashion of the buck-stops-here philosophy of management.
Consider the Manteca Library as an example. It is arguably the most neglected, starved, and shackled municipal service. That is not to say good things don’t happen there every day. They do. It’s just that the city’s historic approach of supporting a library by starving investment deprives the community of a strong asset being even more vibrant, effective, and used more extensively.
Singh’s vision for the library is cost-effective. It can also increase use as well as provides Manteca with additional community amenities at minimal cost.
That vision is to pull up stakes and move it south of the 120 Bypass to the vacant space at the Promenade Shops at Orchard Valley.
The city’s 35-year sales tax split deal that helped the developer land a brick-and-mortar retail whale for Manteca in the form of Bass Pro Shops gave the city use of the parking lot. It also provided a set amount of space that initially the city mulled the possibility of locating a police substation of sorts for better public access for services and such that didn’t involve processing bad guys. The space the city was allowed was used for years as the office of the now defunct Manteca Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Singh believes the city can work with the developer and get a favorable long-term lease of upwards of 30,000-square-feet — about 50 percent larger than the current library on Center Street in downtown — from the existing vacant “in-line” space. The library could then design the space to reflect the modern-day learning needs — and reading/learning-based recreation desires — of people of all needs and abilities.
The prospect of a long-term deal at a rate that beats building a new library or reconfiguring the current one should be fairly strong. It is clear brick-and-mortar retail is going through a major transformation. The means the likelihood of how Orchard Valley was designed to mimic a traditional downtown attracting national chains that lease smaller spaces will diminish. Those that survive and flourish will be in growing markets like Manteca but in spaces such as Stadium Retail Center next to high traffic retailers such as Costco.
The fact the center owner is still exploring adding apartments to Orchard Valley plus the start of the construction of 450 apartments immediately to the east of Bass Pro creates a unique synergy when coupled with a fitness club, 16-screen cinema, and restaurants. It would give Manteca a second town center that has plenty of parking and will still be fairly centrally located. It is also being connected to the north of the 120 Bypass by a separate bicycle/pedestrian crossing of the 120 Bypass at Union Road as well as a separated bike path system that eventually will encircle the city and is just two segments shy of connecting with the Tidewater Bikeway and downtown.
Such an approach would allow the city in 30 years to “update” the relevance of the library space without being chained to one building or one location.
Leasing space is the way that most Fortune 500 companies make sure they keep expenses down, can locate in the best possible place to serve their customers, and are able to adjust to changing market dynamics. Committing to pour financial resources into one location over 20 to 30 years to pay off a $33 million construction loan that is closer to $45 million when interest is included is neither affordable nor flexible.
The Orchard Valley proposal also puts the library in a more user friendly location that is located on private property. That means there are no issue with homeless setting up shop as private property with public access doesn’t fall into the realm of making homeless sacred cows.
The best part of Singh’s vision is that it gives a boost to downtown as well.
Minimal work would be needed to repurpose the existing library as a community center. The L-shaped main floor plan and the McFall Room can easily be used for recreation classes and community uses.
There is already office space within the library.
Singh sees city recreation staff programming numerous activities in the repurposed building as well as the adjoining Library Park.
The park was designed as a gathering place with its mural art walls, playground, and interactive water play feature. An expansive gazebo that replaced an old gazebo that had extensive community use in years past, never has reached its potential despite having amphitheater-style seating as well as a grassy knoll conducive to sitting and soaking up concerts and other presentations. That is what the gazebo was designed and built for, and not for use as a de facto homeless gathering spot or makeshift overnight shelter.
Singh correctly points out that a heavily used park would keep the homeless at bay. That’s not based on conjecture but on how other communities have been able to employ robust public use of such spaces to discourage homeless gathering.
The councilman also sees the opportunity for weekly indoor farmers markets that could be wed with outside activities. Triple-digit heat wouldn’t dampen attendance and it could also be run year round.
What he sees more than anything else is a place where the young and old can gather for low-key community activities on an almost daily basis whether it is recreation classes, mini-events, or other endeavors.
The fledging food truck court on the stub of Poplar Avenue on the west side of the library fits well into such a scenario.
Making the idea even more appealing is that it all is the vision can be put in place without touching the general fund or generating new taxes.
The $19.5 million the city has in hand collected from growth that can only be used for government facilities could be tapped to expand the city hall and make it more citizen friendly, set up and secure the new library, and repurpose the existing library as a community center.
In one fell swoop, three wants that are also needs can be addressed and put in place in rather quick order without having to raise taxes.
And it is not addressing needs on the cheap as Cantu astutely points out Manteca has done in some endeavors over the years but it does so by being smart.