It was a warm spring-like 78 degrees in Manteca on Sunday.
Along Spreckels Avenue trees were showing their fall colors. A handful of bicyclists and walkers - including several with dogs on leash - made their way down the adjoining bike path.
On one end of Spreckels Avenue, an overflow crowd of families from throughout Northern California were on hand for BMX races. At the other end, shoppers were filling stores such as Target and Food 4 Less. In between, J&M Equipment was closed for Sunday or else the West Coast’s finest looking farm equipment and fork lift franchise would be bustling as well.
Travel Spreckels Avenue and you will have driven the road that paved the way to Manteca’s future. The 360-acre business park with retail and residential components known as Spreckels Park was the proverbial game changer. It provided not just the momentum but more importantly the leverage for the redevelopment agency — that has since been killed by the state — to underwrite critical infrastructure that set the stage for Big League Dreams, Orchard Valley, Stadium Retail Center, and dozens of smaller projects ranging from affordable housing to downtown investments.
If you don’t think what happened at the site of the former Spreckels Sugar plant doesn’t qualify as the Manteca Miracle just look 12 miles to the west.
Holly Sugar survived the air quality regulation thumbscrews and the diminishing economic viability of growing sugar beets in California for a few years longer than Spreckels Sugar.
Thanks to a private-public sector partnership that utilized the RDA to provide the final critical infrastructure loans - that were paid back with interest ahead of time - Spreckels Sugar didn’t become a 15-story cancerous blight on Manteca’s heart.
It was torn down and under development within a year of closing.
That wasn’t the case in Tracy. Holly Sugar has stood as an eyesore on Tracy’s eastern flank for more than a decade. Tracy is just now getting around to converting part of the sugar refinery site as a community recreation sports complex.
There are two indisputable facts: Spreckels Park was made possible by RDA loans that were repaid in full. Every established commercial and industrial developer the site was shopped to practically laughed in Manteca’s face viewing the shuttered sugar plant as a potential bottomless pit when it comes to environmental clean-up and demolition.
More than a few thought home builders Mike Atherton and Bing Kirk were more than a bit crazy. And there were large numbers of Manteca residents who thought city leadership had lost their collective minds in trying to make the proverbial lemonade out of arguably one of the biggest lemons that could strike a community. While the sugar plant was no longer Manteca’s top employer at the time it closed, Spreckels had been tied to Manteca’s economic success for 75 years. And having a shuttered sugar plant complete with three 15-story towers that would have shouted “failure” and “blight” at one of the most visible locations in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, where the Highway 120 Bypass meets Highway 99 ,would have been devastating.
Today, the success of Spreckels Park has more than silenced almost all of the early critics. Not only is it the engine that propelled Manteca’s economy into the 21st century but it is the ultimate “green” demolition project. An astonishing 98 percent of the factory, silos and 75 years worth of lime piles were recycled. The old towers, as an example, were demolished and the concrete ground up for use as the base for widening Highway 99 from four to six lanes between Manteca and Ripon.
Those who contend Manteca can do nothing right should drive around Spreckels Park today. And then they need to drive over to Tracy and enjoy the view of what could have been a big albatross hanging around Manteca’s neck for the entire world to see.
Had Manteca’s leadership taken a “can’t do” attitude back in 1998 this city could very well have ended up in the same dire financial straits as other valley communities such as Stockton and Atwater.
This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209-249-3519.