It was without a doubt one sweet ride.
The 78-year marriage between Spreckels Sugar and Manteca that ended a quarter of a century ago was a fabled partnership that for a decade provided economic muscle for the community by turning sugar beets into sugar.
Spreckels Sugar refinery started on Jan. 30, 1918 when the first smoke appeared in the Manteca sky roughly where Target is today as the original factory boiler was fired up. Five months later Manteca was incorporated as a city.
Spreckels came to Manteca, by the way, much like Bass Pro Shops, Costco, and Great Wolf did. Manteca’s leaders had to lure them here, using a sweetheart land deal to seal the deal.
Spreckels already had a dumping station, storage tanks and a tank house in Manteca. They were out in place in 1916 following the previous year’s successful experiment.
The fact the Manteca area’s fertile sandy loam soil had irrigation water thanks to the South San Joaquin Irrigation District capable of delivering water to crops every 8 to 10 days caught Spreckels Sugar’s attention. Scouts from the company’s Salinas plant reported the Manteca area was ideal.
The company — before the start of World War I — had shipped 28,000 pounds of seeds from Germany to Manteca in 1915. The first sugar beets grown in Manteca were tested at the Salinas plant.
That first crop averaged 25 tons per acre of beets with a high sugar percentage. That yielded farmers $5.50 a ton.
The shipping of sugar beets to Salinas was a costly undertaking. That prompted Spreckels to decide to site a plant in San Joaquin County. Lathrop near the Mossdale Crossing and Stockton were the two sites to sugar company wanted. Both had river shipping possibilities and rail freight access.
Manteca wasn’t in the running until the community muscled its way into the process. The Board of Trade — a hybrid organization that combined aspects of a town council without incorporation and a modern-day chamber of commerce — circulated petitions. More importantly they cobbled together a land deal that — when coupled with the railroad running through Manteca — was too good for Spreckels to resist.
The pungent smell that process created was the scent of prosperity. To underscore that point on the plant’s 50th anniversary, Spreckels employees received their pay for one work period in 1948 in crisp $2 bills. Merchants were flooded with the $2 bills that they placed that week in big glass jars to display to the community just how big of an impact Spreckels Sugar had in the community’s financial well-being.
At its peak, Spreckels employed almost 150 people full-time and scores more during sugar beet campaigns. That was a big impact back in the 1930s when the city had 1,600 residents.
By the time the 1970s arrived, Spreckels Sugar’s status as the largest private sector employee was eclipsed by Indy Electronics with a workforce of nearly 600.
But Spreckels still dominated Manteca’s psyche — and skyline. A pair of 15-story silos built in 1958 — the tallest manmade structures at the time in San Joaquin County — caught the eye of travelers on Highway 99 that had been transformed in a freeway three years earlier. The second two silos were added in 1965.
Not only were they on top of Manteca’s historic front door at Yosemite Avenue and Highway 99, but when the 120 Bypass opened in the 1970s the Spreckels Sugar silos were the landmark that not only the community identified with but also tens of thousands of daily travelers.
When the announcement was made on Jan. 9, 1996 that the company was going to pull the plug on the plant costing 110 full time employees and 120 seasonal workers their jobs, the news should not have surprised anyone.
The sugar beet industry in California was taking a beating. Spreckels had invested millions of dollars on different occasions to meet air quality standards that continued to become more stringent with each passing year.
Cheaper labor in the South to process sugar beets was wiping out the yield advantage of California soil. And on top of that, foreign countries were subsidizing sugar growers in a bid to cut into the United States market.
Still, the loss of Spreckels hurt. At the time of its demise 25 years ago this month, it was the city’s fifth largest employer.
Fourteen months later on March 15, 1997, the CHP shutdown Highway 99 and the 120 Bypass as a precaution for the imploding of the four 15-story sugar silos. A crowd estimated at 10,000 watched at the massive silos fell eastward kicking up a massive cloud of dust.
Amid the crowd’s cheers stood the late Bill Perry who was mayor at the time — just outside the main gate where Del Taco is today.
Perry, who was being interviewed by the media, overheard someone nearby saying Manteca would not only never be the same, but that it would never have the jobs that Spreckels offed.
Perry’s response: “You just wait and see.”
What arose from the rubble is now Spreckels Park — complete with an aptly named street, Phoenix Drive. But unlike the imaginary bird of the ancient Arabian wilderness that arose from its demise, Spreckels Park is no economic myth.
It now supports upwards of 2,500 jobs — 12-fold of what Spreckels did. It is home to Ford Motor small parts distribution, Dryers Ice Cream, Lineage Logistics cold storage, and American Modular to name a few.
The plant’s closure created 362 acres of blight at the most high profile spot in Manteca where the 120 Bypass combines with Highway 99. No one had ever successfully demolished a sugar factory in California — and still haven’t as soaring empty concrete sugar silos stand as proof in places like Tracy, Woodland and Spreckels just outside of Salinas.
There was the accumulation of 78 years of lime, the byproduct of the sugar refining process. It was made more problematic given for decades Spreckels rented part of the site to the Moffat Beef Lot. It was a beneficial arrangement for Spreckels as the cattle were fattened with sugar beet pulp. But the fact the feed lot — that at times temporarily held upwards of 10,000 head of cattle — was in existence for decades there was the added issue of the ground being saturated with lots of manure.
Toss in the fact there were four 15-story silos, a factory, and warehouses to demolish and dispose of, developers took one look and kept going. Banks saw it as way too big of a risk.
The firm that has acquired the Spreckels Sugar holdings at one point sought city approval to keep the silos intact and convert the remaining property with housing and a 9-hole golf course. Lenders were underwhelmed with the plan. The firm’s bid to shop the property to other developers was fruitless as every developer had major concerns about possible hidden costs related to environmental clean-up as well as the expense of demolishing the refinery, warehouse, and silos.
A Los Angeles firm manufacturing factory lifts wanted to buy a company that the successor to Spreckels owned that produced motors that they used for their lifts. The deal had one string attached — they had to buy the Manteca Spreckels property as well.
It was that point that Ron Cheek — a former City of Manteca public works director who had been working for years in the private sector as a land development consultant — approached developer Mike Atherton. Cheek was hired by the firm that had acquired Spreckels site along with the motor manufacturing concern to devise the initial development plan for the site that was DOA.
Atherton, who has a reputation of being a visionary thinker that some would argue could be borderline dreaming at times, went to Amherst, New York to make his pitch.
He came back with a deal that allowed him and his partners to try and develop the site that allowed them to pay for the land as they secured development deals.
They had to clear one significant hurdle: They had already taken on great financial risk and burned through substantial money preparing the site for development leaving little in the way of resources they needed to put in place key infrastructure essential to market and develop the interior of the business park. The sections along Yosemite Avenue — the Food-4-Less store anchoring the first phase of Spreckles Marketplace, Chevron, Jack-in-the-Box and Home Depot — could be developed as they relied on existing infrastructure. Banks would not lend to them even with what success AKF had already enjoyed.
That is when the approached the City of Manteca for a $7 million redevelopment agency loan.
The reception was less than enthusiastic. The city manager at the time, Bob Adams, viewed the project as being fraught with excessive risk. The council led by Mayor Bill Perry was more supportive but by the time AKF was in a positon to seek execution of the RDA loan agreement; Carlon Perry has been elected mayor and Denise Giordano to the City Council. Both opposed RDA in general as corporate welfare and were dead set against Manteca RDA getting involved with the Spreckels project. Even though staff had expressed reservations, after a 3-2 vote where Perry and Giordano came up on the losing end the $7 million vote was executed.
The RDA loan to complete Spreckels Avenue and extend water, sewer and storm drains was paid back in full with interest three years ahead of schedule. It was the only major RDA loan ever executed by the city that got every dime back plus interest instead of forgiving part or all money loaned based on performance targets such as job creation and increased sales tax.
The Spreckels Park project was a textbook case of what RDAs were supposed to do. It took a shuttered sugar refinery that no private sector lenders would sign on to, eliminate blight, increased the jobs that were lost 12-fold, and stimulated the local economy.
The shot-in-the-arm that the assessed value of the Spreckels Park development gave the RDA with essentially 100 percent of all new value being placed on the RDA tax rolls can’t be over emphasized. One $25 million distribution center alone generated $250,000 in RDA taxes.
The project significantly enhanced the bonding capacity of the Manteca RDA bankrolling the major part of the agency’s investment in the Big League Dreams sports complex, the infrastructure needed to extend Daniels Street initially and now to McKinley Avenue to allow the securing of the Stadium Retail Center-Costco along with the Great Wolf Resort, two major affordable housing complexes, and the Union Road interchange project.
The key to the successful conversion of the site into a multi-purpose development that included the 177-home Curran Grove neighborhood required finding the right “recipe” to handle the gigantic piles of lime and the manure laden soil so that the ground could be made suitable for development.
Once they came up with the right formula six giant mixers were operated for months to make the soil suitable.
When everything was torn down or imploded, more than 98 percent of the material was recycled. Among the bigger items saw the steel going to an Oakland recycler, the bricks being snapped up for residential and commercial use, and the concrete silos being ground up and used as base for the widening of Highway 99 between Ripon and Manteca from four to six lanes.
The project also gave Manteca the ability to develop the Spreckels Park BMX track in one of the project’s two storm retention basins.
THE LEGACY OF SPRECKELS:
From Manteca’s economic driver to business park
It was without a doubt one sweet ride.