SALIDA — Few Salida residents can claim they work where they live, and the vast majority leave town to do their shopping.
But Stanislaus County's largest unincorporated community, which straddles Highway 99 on Modesto's northern edge, is not just a commuter town.
It's a place where parents are involved with schools and the Little League season is launched with a parade on Broadway Avenue.
Commuters and farmers who once formed the backbone of this community converge on the old-style business district to buy gas, use the post office or have coffee with friends at the Kountry Kitchen cafe.
Community life revolves around school campuses, the downtown ball field and the central fire station, where the annual Mother's Day breakfast is held.
Don Murphy, leader of the Salida Rotary, which hangs the Christmas decorations every year and trims the flower beds on Broadway, said plenty of the town's breadwinners commute to the Bay Area. Others take shorter trips to jobs in Modesto or San Joaquin County.
"People like the community and they stay," Murphy said. "We have a lot of people who have been here a long time and they are not going anywhere."
These days, the town of 13,700 is buzzing about Modesto's proposal to annex it and an adjacent 3,400-acre area designated for homes, retail centers and business parks.
Modesto officials want to bring badly needed jobs to the business park sites with access to the freeway and believe the city could provide better services than the county to Salida residents.
It appears most of the public reaction is negative. Many Salidans want no part of Modesto.
"No Salida Annex" signs recently appeared on lawns. Informational fliers for a petition drive to stop the annexation were hand-delivered to homes last week.
Keeping it small
Even residents who are more involved with community than politics don't want their town to become part of Modesto.
"The way I see it, Modesto is more interested in how it will help them rather than how it will help Salida residents," said Mike Turn, who has led Scout troops and coached youth baseball.
He's among residents who want to keep Salida's small-town identity. "I came from L.A., where you don't see people you know very often. In Salida, we know people and we are known," he said.
Tom Burns, Salida's representative on the Modesto Regional Fire Authority, said he wants to hear more details of Modesto's plan. He doubts the city could deliver better services or overcome the mistrust that residents feel.
For decades, Salida was a small town near the railroad for families who had dairies or grew crops on the surrounding farmland. Longtime resident Jim Paioni estimated it had 700 residents when he graduated from eighth grade with an 18-member class in 1944. He recalls Dust Bowl migrants living in tents at the edge of town.
Salida changed in the mid-1980s when developers built homes and sold them for $80,000 to buyers willing to accept a 90-minute commute to Bay Area jobs. In 1990, county officials gave the nod to a 735-acre project with 2,300 homes on both sides of Highway 99.
A half-mile from the downtown, stores serving Salida and northwest Modesto residents were clustered in the Costco center on Pelandale Avenue, which was annexed by Modesto.
Salidans lament that their tax dollars spent at the shopping center pay for services elsewhere.
Urban growth in northwest Modesto has tied together the two communities. Modesto has supplied water to Salida since it bought the Del Este Water Co. in 1995. Students from Salida and north Modesto attend Modesto City Schools' Gregori High School. The Salida Union School District's Mildred Perkins Elementary School is inside the Modesto city limit.
No tax base
For years, talk about Salida becoming its own city went nowhere because the town has no tax base. Stanislaus County leaders approved the Salida Now plan in 2007 to generate revenue for services, but it was derailed by the recession.
Thomas Reeves, president of the Salida Municipal Advisory Council, said he wins no friends by keeping an open mind to annexation to see if Modesto can jump-start the community plan. Under one scenario, Salida would keep its name and identity as a district inside Modesto.
Reeves said he likes what Modesto did with its downtown and would like to see upscale centers in Salida with retail stores, restaurants and entertainment. Modesto needs to offer other "bargaining chips" such as better law enforcement and a seat for Salida on the City Council, he said.
Meloney Sanders said police presence is a concern since the Sheriff's Department reduced patrols and turned its substation into a day reporting center for probationers. She wants to know more about what Modesto is offering before formulating an opinion about annexation. She would hate to see Salida become a neglected section of Modesto, she said.
Mike Dozier, executive director of the Office of Community and Economic Development at California State University, Fresno, said it's common for residents of unincorporated areas to resist being annexed by a city because they fear losing their community's identity.
Unincorporated towns such as Salida emerged in California when the demand for housing in strong employment centers, such as the Bay Area, caused people to move to outlying areas where housing was affordable.
Dozier said Salida reminds him of Santa Clarita in northern Los Angeles County. Santa Clarita combined with four nearby towns to form what is one of the more progressive cities in Los Angeles County, he said.
The home of the Six Flags theme park was able to include shopping centers and hotels in the city boundaries to generate tax revenue for public safety and other services, Dozier said.
The 25-year veteran of local government said counties are responsible for serving large geographic areas, making it hard to operate services in densely populated unincorporated areas. Cities usually can provide water and sewer services at less cost to residents because the costs are spread over a larger customer base, Dozier said.
Annexation could mean Modesto would take over park maintenance and offer recreation programs in Salida, though the cash-strapped city increasingly asks volunteers to help with those chores in Modesto.
Salida residents said local nonprofit groups do a fine job running youth basketball, football and baseball programs on their own.
Murphy said he doesn't buy the argument that Modesto would provide better services. He said sheriff's deputies are responsive and he doubts Modesto police would commit many resources to Salida.
"We have wide, clean streets. Our schools are excellent. Our streets are paved they are not deteriorating. We are not unhappy with the services we have," he said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.