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Steve Hansen A sad tale of two cities: Flint and Stockton

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Steve Hansen

Posted: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 12:00 am

What do Stockton and a Michael Moore movie have in common?

In 1989, “Roger and Me” made its debut. Moore’s first feature film focused on the demise of Flint, Michigan. The documentary revealed what happened to this prosperous industrial town when General Motors closed factories and moved them to Mexico.

The similarities do not lie in the creation of massive unemployment by corporate executives. Stockton has never been a magnet for large manufacturing. It’s rather a comparison of how these local city leaders attempted to revitalize their communities.

Flint’s city fathers thought they could remake the town. They spent millions to pump new life into their Michigan metropolis. A Hyatt hotel was built for $13 million to attract convention business. Another $100 million was allocated for a theme park called Auto World. The plan was for this development to turn this industrial blue-collar area into a destination for over a million tourists.

Unfortunately, the hotel never attracted much more than a ladies’ Scrabble convention, and the “theme park” closed after six months.

Imported entertainment, such as Anita Bryant and Pat Boone, didn’t do much to motivate the depressed residents, nor attract visitors either.

In the movie, Moore interviews one of the city’s promoters as she leaves town by boarding a plane for Florida. He asks her what went wrong. “Maxine” simply replies, “You can’t make Palm Beach out of the Bowery.”

It appears that Stockton has encountered a similar fate.

The city’s redevelopment of the historic waterfront hotel ended up as low-income housing. Stockton also provided more than $2 million in redevelopment funds for Paragary’s upscale restaurant — now just a distant memory.

Stockton’s leaders tried to transform the decaying waterfront into a showplace paradise.

They built a marina, theater complex, a high-rise hotel and a sports arena/convention center — mostly paid for by mortgaging the city’s future through municipal bonds.

But like Flint, even big-name entertainment such as Neil Diamond couldn’t change the face of this agricultural and historically tough port town. The city lost $400,000 of taxpayer dollars just on the Diamond kickoff event alone.

As with Flint, things did not go as planned. Stockton soon became a location of massive foreclosures. It was named as America’s most miserable city. Statistics showed it to be the place with the second-highest murder rate in California.

It’s not that the former leaders didn’t have a dream. After all, Stockton has a great central location, miles of inland waterways and generally good weather.

But on the other hand, here’s a city with over 300,000 people that has had a modern airport for over 40 years. It can handle the biggest commercial jets. Yet it can only attract one small airline with a limited schedule to Las Vegas and Southern California.

In the end, reality always prevails. Some of the problems for both Flint and Stockton can be traced directly to the states of Michigan and California. They are not known for their friendly business climates. Taxes are high. They do not have conditions or policies that encourage new or continued free enterprise opportunities.

It’s very difficult to have prosperous communities without jobs. Creating these positions require environmental regulations, salaries and other business costs that are comparable with other parts of the country — even beyond our shores.

Perhaps someday, it will be possible for Stockton to become a “Palm Beach.” But it’s going to take far more insight and imagination than what city and state leaders offer us today.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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