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Merced: People + ideas + support = success
DOWNTOWN Merced tower
The Merced Theatre tower watches over Downtown Merced, a roughly two-square-mile home to more than 400 businesses. - photo by James Burns


• CITY: Merced

• POPULATION: 80,793



* According to the 2012 U.S. census

MERCED – The lobby at Coffee Bandits froths with conversation of all flavors, and it’s not uncommon to find those on divergent paths sharing creamers.

The evening crowd at J&R Tacos just down the way features its own motley crew of families, students and young professionals, each sharing a love for the scene and the pastor. 

Hope springs eternal from the taps at The Partisan, where owner RC Essig has created not only a stop for thirsty traveling musicians but a mini-empire. He also owns a stake in 17th Street Public House, a bar-and-wine establishment the next block over.

Along Main Street, there is an 83-year-old stage theatre, another with only silver screens, and a playhouse. 

All of this activity takes place within about a two-square-mile area in Merced, otherwise known as Downtown Merced.

“I was once told that a successful downtown is a seven-day a week downtown, not a five-day a week downtown,” said Karen Baker, a development associate with the City of Merced and a representative for Merced Visitors Services, which currently manages Downtown Merced.

“Downtown Merced is considered the heart of the city,” she later added.

Imagine that.

For Mantecans, that concept might be hard to grasp. There is a grave misnomer in The Family City that civic life – culture, arts and a decent family meal – can exist only where a freeway crosses. While brightly lit and visible from the overpass, the Target and Walmart shopping centers aren’t the anchors of Manteca’s downtown life.

The downtown corridor – the area between Moffat and North and the railroad tracks and Fremont – has long a been a source frustration for Manteca city officials and residents, and a gathering place for society’s miscreants – the drinkers and drug addled, the loiterers and homeless. 

Those issues exist everywhere, even in thriving downtowns like Merced’s. Tom Price, publisher of the Downtown Life Magazine, believes those that choose to make the homeless issue an obstacle are only looking for reasons to fail.

“The five years with the magazine, the No. 1 question was always ‘How do you combat the homeless problem?’ ” said Price, whose magazine was headquartered in Downtown Merced for almost five years. “There’s no one silver bullet that will take care of it.”

Though he’s never visited Manteca’s downtown, Price understands the framework of Small Town, USA. He was born and raised in Visalia, where he began a career in journalism. For a time, he worked for a magazine there which gave him the know-how to eventually launch the DLM in Merced.

It’s his experience that every community has potential and promise for a vibrant downtown born from its populace. 

You’ve just got to rally around the talent. 

Merced, a Central Valley city of similar size and demographics, is proof positive that the formula – (people + ideas) + support = success – works.

Downtown Merced features more than 400 businesses and a calendar of events aimed to keep foot traffic and interest levels high throughout the year.

Arts and culture are the bedrock of this community. 

The Merced Theatre, with its iconic tower, will host country music legend Kenny Rogers on Thursday. Playhouse Merced is booked out through 2015. And every quarter, Downtown Merced hosts the Art Hop, where businesses adopt a local artist and turn their shops and stores into miniature galleries.

Profit margin is defined by exposure, says one local business owner. 

“Those that might have a negative opinion of downtown can come and experience something completely different,” said Coffee Bandits co-owner Kurt Winbigler of the Art Hop. “They see people having fun, and visit businesses they didn’t know were down here. I have people come in and say, ‘Oh, I had no idea this was here.’ I’ve been here for three years now.”

Winbigler came to Merced to further his education. He was part of the University of California, Merced’s inaugural class in 2005.

Back then, he miscast Downtown Merced as being unsafe because of its transients and graffiti, so he rarely made the trek into town. 

Today, his coffee shop approaches its third birthday in the glow of the Merced Theatre marquee. 

“The more time I spent in the city and in downtown,” Winbigler started, “the more I came to realize that just wasn’t the case.”

To this day, Downtown Merced is not immune to its challenges – graffiti, flash-in-the-pan businesses and aggressive panhandlers, to name a few – but there is a sense of ownership that overcomes. 

“Creative people find creative solutions,” Price said. “Most of the time, those creative people are musicians and artists. They tend to think differently than most businesses and city officials. The culture down there was ready to happen, because so many creative people were invested in the downtown.

“You just have to empower the right people to get involved,” he later added. “If somebody wants to open a business, give them the power and incentive to do the things they want in downtown. If you’re working with a city that doesn’t want to empower those people, you’re dead from the start.”

Downtown Merced appears to have the support of the city council, and business leaders may ultimately get the autonomy they covet. 

The City of Merced is planning to hire a third-party downtown organizer to manage the funds created in the “double-tax district.” 

Owners in the downtown area pay double the taxes on their business licenses, and in the past, that money – approximately $65,000-$85,000 – has been allocated for improvements by Merced Visitors Services and the city council.

A third-party downtown organizer would take that burden off city staff. A newly formed Main Street Association has submitted a bid on the job and a decision could take months to render, Winbigler said.

“If we’re paying into it, we should have a say in how it’s spent,” he said. “It works out that our interests are served. Safety, security and cleanliness are our big focuses as a board.”