Rolling my eyes slightly as daydreams of fishing, sitting by the pool or watching ESPN slipped slowly away, I readied myself for a day of carrying bags and saying “Yes dear, that looks nice.”
However, what followed the initial three-word suggestion is what stuck with me: “We should go check out the new Coach shop at the updated Vintage Fair mall in Modesto.”
This request to travel to Modesto got me thinking. Living in Tracy for the past 16 years, I have watched as we have doubled from around 40,000 to more than 80,000 residents. The growth in the Central Valley did not stop at Tracy, as many moved throughout the valley in search of relatively affordable housing.
As Tracy became yet another bedroom community, where folks travel to purchase an affordable home and enroll their children in a decent school, our community was never positioned to offer retail, dining and entertainment options that could fulfill local demand while creating a positive return on the investment potential developers required.
As Tracy grew, we did see new entertainment and shopping options. We built a small indoor mall, a new movie theater and a couple large chain restaurants.
Once not long ago, we had to go over the hill to visit a Home Depot, Sears or Target. Not too many years ago, one had to drive to Modesto, Stockton or Pleasanton to visit a mall. Not very long ago, my wife would have to travel to Dublin to satisfy her Marshall’s discount designer shopping addiction.
As new houses continued to be scooped up around town, Tracy residents finally had some limited options for local entertainment.
Unfortunately, like all great economic booms, this one came to an end. Our rapid growth slowed to a crawl, our investments dried up, our over-extended equity disappeared and our retail outlets vacated as if the operators were running from a deadly plague.
As we begin to see some signs that the economy is breathing again, Tracy needs to consider how we will define ourselves in this economic recovery.
Will we continue to be just another lower-priced bedroom community, where folks come to sleep while they take their entertainment dollars to more progressive communities? Or will we leverage this point in time to build our community into not only a reasonably priced place to live with freeway stopping places for cheeseburgers and gas, but a destination where folks actually come to visit?
As we have watched our mall fall into a state of embarrassment with no anchor store, little to no retail shops of interest and an outdated play structure, Modesto remodeled and added new high-end retail options and a BJs Brewery restaurant. Tracy approved a Super Wal-Mart, as Manteca brought in a new Bass Pro Shops and movie theater. Tracy remodeled the old discount Grocery Outlet, as Manteca built the very cool Big League Dreams. Tracy battles special-interest groups to build a low-priced WinCo grocery store, while Brentwood finished a beautiful mid- to high-end outdoor mall.
While money is tight for all of us right now, is a single-minded focus on discount groceries and shopping the only way to go? Do we want to be the community where folks visit simply to find low-cost housing and discount groceries?
Once, people used to travel to Tracy to visit our outlets and later to shop at our new Costco. Now we are in danger of being the location where people come to spend money at a Super Wal-Mart while traveling to Pleasanton, Brentwood or Modesto to spend on entertainment.
While feeding a family is always a challenge, is saving 90 cents on a gallon of milk worth losing what makes a city a destination and not just an interstate exit? Can’t we use our extensive and existing lower-cost retail and grocery options and demand that planners encourage future development to create a retail environment that makes folks think of Tracy when they have a Friday off for a shopping trip?
So, as I diligently carried the multiple bags my wife had accumulated at the Modesto mall on her personal challenge to single-handedly right our floundering economy, I just couldn’t help but wonder: Shouldn’t Tracy be better positioned so that she could support this economic recovery right here in our own town?
• Brian Williams has been a Tracy resident since 1993 and is a husband and father of two, who works as a supervisor in the cable, phone and Internet industry. He’s among a select group of local Town Crier columnists in the Tracy Press.