Jeff Jardine

Arts center brings good news to this 'little farm town'

Tonight's official be-there-or-be-square, this-time-it's-for-real opening of the Gallo Center for the Arts represents a significant milestone in Modesto history.

It's the first major event here in a long, long time that doesn't center on a felony, scandal, natural disaster or anything else that draws attention to the area for all the wrong reasons.

This time, it's positive: A posh new, state-of-the-art showplace not unlike what you'll find in San Francisco and other major cities.

In fact, the Gallo Center just might be enough to persuade visiting media to cease referring to Modesto as a "dusty little farm town," despite the fact the city surpassed the 200,000 dusty little farmers mark years ago.

Yes, Modesto's image can use the makeover.

Just four years ago, TV trucks in town for Scott Peterson's preliminary hearing parked on the very dirt where the center's lobby now stands while crews prepared the other parts of the site for construction.

Six years ago, the media lurked on every corner, lying in wait for the next Gary Condit sighting as the coverage of Chandra Levy's disappearance came to Modesto.

Eight years ago, we became the host city for another tragedy -- the murders of three Yosemite tourists -- in part because the FBI office leading the investigation was situated here.

And a decade ago, a sizable chunk of Modesto and beyond flooded when the Tuolumne River spilled over New Don Pedro Dam. Just about a mile east of the Gallo Center, homes in the airport neighborhood rotted in the floodwaters. Want a lasting memory? Think of those very poor folks on the south side of the river trying to get their rusted, worn-out trailers out of the Driftwood Mobile Home Park before they, too, drifted away as the river rose.

Toss in a police gun scandal, another involving the county's chief executive officer, the hung-jury trial of Modesto's former mayor, nationally high auto theft rates and being the methamphetamine capital, and it's clear we were long overdue for something good.

For many Modestans, nothing is longer overdue than what became the Gallo Center, which has been a dream in varying forms since 1938.

Here in Stanislaus County, we seem to have an inferiority complex. Our roads are inadequate, given all the development during the past two decades.

Many valley students lack the basic academic skills required by the state, and companies say they can't come here because we don't have enough high school graduates.

We've become a bedroom community for the Bay Area while it retains the jobs and industries.

Modesto renovates old John Thurman Field to house the Modesto A's -- the best it could do at the time. Stockton, meanwhile, builds a brand new waterfront ballpark, an arena and then snags the Oakland minor-league baseball affiliation from us.

Worst of all, nobody seems to know what to do about it -- any of it. Oh, yeah. Let's pay more consultants to conduct more surveys to tell us what we already know.

So when something like the Gallo Center finally becomes a reality, embrace it.

Yes, it went way over budget. Yes, it should have opened years ago. Yes, the taxpayers paid a huge chunk of the bill, though the county does own the building.

Ask yourself this: Will Modesto become a better place because of it?

Will it bring entertainers to Modesto who otherwise never would have come?

Will it give people -- particularly children, as promised -- the opportunity to experience the arts in ways they otherwise never could?

Will it become the driving force in the continued resurgence of Modesto's downtown?

Will it change Modesto's image for those who don't live here?

Most of all, will it allow Modestans to feel better about Modesto?

I suspect the answers to all of those questions, evident within just a few short years, will be yes.

Just remember to brush the farm dust from your overalls before you go inside.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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