Anybody driving to or from the Bay Area in the last few years has seen it – the words of one of the world’s most recognizable brands stretching across the front of what was once a vacant warehouse.
The fact that Lathrop – which has long been seen as some kind of second-class neighbor to the much larger, much more developed Manteca – was able to land a manufacturing facility for Elon Musk’s one-of-a-kind company was big news when it was announced. I spoke with City Manager Steve Salvatore the day the story broke, and he was mildly overwhelmed after fielding calls from the Los Angeles Times and a dozen other media outlets who wanted to know more about the plans, and, I assume, how a town they’ve never heard of landed a branch of a company that everybody in America knows.
As it turns out, Lathrop did it by doing something that most people don’t associate with government – accessibility and convenience. They made their staff accessible to the company around the clock if they needed it, and the company, which was running out of space at the abandoned New United Motors Manufacturing Facility that it acquired when Toyota and General Motors left town, needed additional space. And why acquire land for manufacturing in one of the most expensive markets in the country when you can go just a little bit out of the way and find a city willing to bend over backwards to make it work? They would have been foolish not to have come to Lathrop – their location is perfect for distribution, the city is business-friendly, and workers at that facility can actually afford to live near it.
And the relationship has only gotten stronger.
When the city swore in its new council last month, an executive for the company was in the audience – a symbol that the Tesla acquisition was anything but a fluke. Another symbol is the massive building that is currently going up behind the old Pilkington glass plant – owned and operated by none other than America’s favorite luxury electric car manufacturer. They didn’t just acquire an old vacant building this time – they built their own building, nearly double the size of its current footprint, behind a sprawling campus that essentially shields it from traffic or those who know what they’re looking for.
Speculation is that the building will somehow be a part of their Gigafactory makeup, although there is absolutely nothing to back up that up and seems unlikely given that Tesla already manufactures lithium-ion batteries just east of Reno, less than three hours away.
But when you factor in the fact that a South Korean auto parts manufacturing entity has also moved to Lathrop, supposedly to help provide parts for Tesla, which is nearby, that would make three buildings that the company operates in a city that most people in Manteca dismissed over the years as just a town they pass through on their way to the freeway.
Well, Lathrop has arrived.
Just two of the projects that they currently have in the works will bring more than 10 million square-feet of warehousing and light industrial space to the Highway 120 Bypass corridor, and turn the rural, untouched areas of property between Manteca and Lathrop into a potential destination for Bay Area companies who don’t want to worry about paying obscenely high prices for real estate when they don’t have to.
But the likelihood of another Tesla coming to the area seems, well, slim in the grand scheme of things.
According to San Joaquin County Supervisor Tom Patti, who informed a group of prospective voters during his campaign that he had spoken to one of the first 100 employees at Google about having Silicon Valley companies come to the Central Valley, the fact that this area has such a low percentage of college graduates all but guarantees that the tech giants won’t be coming here anytime soon. Efforts are underway to bring a California State University campus to Stockton, which would bolster those numbers, but such an undertaking could take a decade or longer, and even then, any noticeable change in the education level of the pool of workers would take just as long. It could be 20 years before the demographics are suited for such a company to see the Central Valley as a viable alternative, and very few of the companies that people toss around in conversation do any of the stateside manufacturing that Tesla does. If Apple made its computers in California, rather than just putting a nice sticker on their shiny new hardware letting you know that it was designed here, then that may be different. But for the time being, thinking that Tesla will be the first in an expansion exodus from the Silicon Valley seems silly.
But Northern California is more than just Silicon Valley, and Lathrop’s position at the confluence of I-5, the Highway 120 Bypass, and the nearby I-205 corridor (remember, River Islands, on the other side of the San Joaquin River, is not Lathrop’s city limits) makes it attractive for any company who wants to move their goods and services throughout the nation’s most populous state. It’s why In-N-Out moved their Northern California distribution facility to the city years ago – there are more than 15 million people that live in Northern California, and nearly all of those populated areas are within a four-hour drive from Lathrop, making daily truck trips possible.
Even Manteca is trying to get in on the craze. While the majority of their property south of the Bypass is earmarked for residential housing – and there are a lot of houses that will be going in – the city’s northern edges are being marketed for the kind of light industrial and warehousing developments that Lathrop has been snapping up left and right. With the CenterPoint Intermodal Station now developing, that will mean even more jobs for residents here in the valley.
That’s what the focus should be on, and not landing some white whale that will bring all of the other companies with them.
Having Tesla manufacturing parts for their cars in our backyards – and maybe batteries for our homes – just down the road is amazing but let us not forget that Tesla is the exception rather than the rule.