The Manteca City Council election is almost over.
In a few days, the last ballots will be counted. As it stands now Gary Singh will join the council as a newbie while Debby Moorhead — barring a surge for Jeff Zellner in the final batch of provisional ballots left to be counted — will be returned for her third four-year term.
The City Council may want to savor the honeymoon because it may be extremely short.
That’s because a watershed event is on the horizon.
If Manteca fails to land a deal with a developer/operator for the proposed 500-room resort hotel with indoor waterpark and conference center there are going to be some big questions that voters are going to want answered.
Moorhead in her re-election campaign said one of the unfinished projects she wanted to see through to the end was securing a waterpark. The hunt for a waterpark operator started eight years ago next month just as Moorhead took the oath of office.
Here’s the problem: Up until six months ago Manteca didn’t have a lot of money invested in the hunt. There were some redevelopment agency financed studies that perhaps cost a couple hundred thousands of dollars.
That changed when Manteca earlier this year approved spending $8 million from the remaining redevelopment agency bond proceeds to put in infrastructure on city owned property to make it possible to develop the proposed 60-acre waterpark resort and an additional 150 acres as a family entertainment zone (FEZ).
While some of the work — a purple pipeline under the 120 Bypass to deliver recycled wastewater for park irrigation and such in the growing areas of South Manteca — will be put to use eventually, what isn’t a sure bet is the FEZ and the water park.
Should a water park deal fall through, Manteca taxpayers will have $8 million plus in the ground that may never get used. At the same time $8 million that could have legally been used for community park development and interchange work on the 120 Bypass will have been buried and lost forever.
Here’s the problem. The world has changed since 2008 when the city first started negotiations via McWhinney Development with Great Wolf Resort.
That’s because of two things: The Great Recession and the surge of online retail.
While entertainment-style businesses — resorts, restaurants, and such — are relatively immune to the onslaught of Amazon, retail isn’t.
Talk to commercial market experts and they will tell you the 120 Bypass corridor — given its strategic location in a 20-mile radius that has over 900,000 consumers — is a sweet place. But at the same time they will tell you there is way, way too much land already zoned for commercial use with easy freeway access and great freeway exposure.
Without a resort, the FEZ infrastructure becomes a gigantic white elephant. There would be no synergy or lure for other private sector investors. Worse yet, it represents $8 million of tax dollars buried for nothing. While it couldn’t legally be used for many other purposes, it could have been funneled into a community park or bypass improvements as delineated in the RDA bond documents.
Ironically it was the City Council following staff recommendations backed up with one of those wonderful consultants the city routinely hires to either replace common sense or to affirm their perceptions that raised the stakes.
Great Wolf at one point was ready to go forward. Then someone got the harebrained idea they knew the market better than the private sector when they put a hold on progress so they could add the FEZ into the mix. The delay coupled with other events that followed prompted Great Wolf to get cold feet.
The City Council is well aware of the political and economic stakes. It is one of the reasons they hired Elena Reyes with her strong background in economic development as city manager.
Whether Reyes can steer the city through the mess that wasn’t created on her watch is made more perilous by the fact there is little stomach for the city to exceed its promise not to forgo more than 75 percent of new room taxes the project would generate to the developer to make it work.
Manteca taxpayers are getting more than weary of continued promises that the “next” big deal the city makes will flow money into the general fund to pay for day-to-day municipal operations such as police and fire.
At this point anyone hoping the city fails — including its harshest critics — is akin to being on a passenger jet and pulling for the cockpit crew to all die of a heart attack and for all engines to fail simultaneously.
That said, if it is clear by the time the 2018 Manteca City Council election rolls around and there is no resort deal there will be hell to pay at the ballot box.
And that could lead to a shift of seismic proportions as to how Manteca residents view the city’s overall policies toward growth.