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Tale of two cities with sugar plants: Manteca & Tracy
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Bill Perry was mayor during one of Manteca’s darkest moments — the closing of Spreckels Sugar that had served as the symbol, if not the heart, of the city’s economic strength for 75 years.
Spreckels Sugar and Manteca literally grew up together. There were those who viewed the closure as blasphemy and openly lambasted Perry and the rest of the council for not doing enough to prevent the plant’s closure.
It didn’t matter that the writing had been on the wall for years.
It was getting tougher and tougher for sugar refineries to comply with ever tightening California air quality laws. Production in the South was much more profitable as there was less overhead.
More than a few looked toward Tracy where Holly Sugar still operated and accused Manteca’s leaders of lacking vision.
But Perry stood firm. On the day the four 15-story sugar silos were imploded before 10,000 people to eliminate the most famous part of Manteca’s skyline, Perry said he had confidence that Spreckels Sugar would literally arise from its ashes into something even better for the city’s economy.
Doubters sneered.
Eleven years later Perry’s words appear prophetic.
Tracy’s plant no longer processes sugar. Its silos along Interstate 205 — the main door to Tracy — are not symbolic of anything but blight. Tracy has bought the 1,200-acre ranch where Holly Sugar raised its own beets to the west and south of the silos so the city can expand its wastewater treatment plant.
Today there are no jobs on the old Tracy sugar plant site. In Manteca, more than 1,800 workers are gainfully employed on land that once supported just over 200 jobs. By the time development is complete, the job number is expected to push 2,000.
Manteca is receiving significant property tax and sales tax from the private sector investments at the former 362-acre Spreckels plant site.
And perhaps most important of all, Manteca’s front door where Highway 99 and the Highway 120 come together doesn’t have four 15-story monuments to blight and economic failure. Imagine what message that would have sent to potential employers.
Spreckels Sugar’s transformation was made possible by a public-private partnership. Redevelopment agency loans of over $5 million  — which all has been repaid ahead of schedule — were made to AKF Development to construct infrastructure. The RDA loan was required to make the project a reality for one very big reason — no private sector lender wanted to touch the project with a 1,000-foot pole. There were way too many risks.
The partners in AKF Development blew through $1 million alone just on required soil tests, gambling they were right in anticipating they’d be no toxics. If any were found, the project was dead and AKF would have probably been history.
Next was the demolition. It was a huge dollar investment and a headache for disposal. But AKF thought out of the box and gave the crumbled concrete silos to a construction firm to use as base to build the sweetest six-lane freeway in California — the stretch between Ripon and Manteca on Highway 99.
The iron went to a mill in Oakland. The bricks were recycled. The lime — which AKF had tried to give to reclamation districts to strengthen levees but discovered federal paperwork would have taken too long — was worked into land throughout the 362 acres.
It was no easy task considering the lime pile —the byproduct of processing sugar beets — had been accumulating for nearly 75 years.
At that point, the developers still didn’t have the ability to secure loans for infrastructure. It was too risky for private lenders. That’s where Manteca redevelopment came into play.
Manteca today has a front door that’s vibrant. Tracy has a closed sugar plant with tall silos and a sewer plant greets travelers along Interstate 205.
Manteca avoided the same fate because they had developers who were willing to risk it all, a redevelopment agency that was able to provide needed financing once the biggest risks were assumed and conquered by AKF, and isn’t saddled with a wastewater treatment plant at its next door.
Manteca was indeed lucky to have Mayor Bill Perry at the helm during what was one of the city’s darkest hours. Instead of throwing in the towel or bowing to critics who kept slamming RDA investments as evil, Perry helped provide Manteca with new economic direction.