More UC Merced students discovering downtown's charms

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comOctober 23, 2012 

There's little doubt the city of Merced has been transformed by the University of California at Merced, which broke ground a decade ago. And while the continued economic slump has limited the city and university's ability to grow around each other, the town-and-gown relationship continues to evolve.

The university is putting in housing and building classrooms as fast as finances will allow. A 600-bed dormitory is expected to open next fall. A second science and engineering building and student services building are under construction.

At the same time, campus development has slowed with statewide budget cut to education, and the university doesn't expect to reach the 10,000-student mark for another decade.

"The state budget hindered the ability for us to grow as quickly as we would have liked to," said Corie Lucero, UC Merced executive director of governmental and community relations. "But you have to recognize that there's more people downtown drinking coffee and eating lunch."

More than three out of four of the university's more than 5,700 students live off campus, but some say they have had trouble connecting with the city.

"I don't feel like Merced has that many different amenities, even the food places aren't that great," said Sonamtso Lama, a junior at UC Merced. "But then, I am sort of spoiled, being from the Bay Area."

Like other undergraduates, the 20-year-old Oakland native lives in a house with several roommates in north Merced. Lama said she spends most of her time at people's houses, and frequently leaves on the weekends.

"Shopping is really restricted in Merced because there's really only Target," she said. "If we really want to do some serious shopping, we'll go to Modesto."

Alex Ela, a 21-year-old senior, echoed those concerns, but said he enjoys going to Main Street about once a week.

"It's great seeing the culture downtown," said the Southern California native living in north Merced. "It's different when you're older and there for nightlife. I usually go with friends and I usually see someone I know."

For many students living on campus, getting downtown means an hourlong bus ride. Almost all freshmen are restricted from having parking permits because of limited space for cars.

"For people on campus, it's really hard with the bus schedule to just get out and find something to do because it's a least a two-hour trip going there and coming back," said Caleb Zedek, a 19-year-old sophomore, who said he's been on Main Street four times.

However, for local businesses owners, enough of those roughly 6,800 individuals regularly make their way downtown to have a noticeable impact.

Tino's Hair Styling on Main Street services dozens of UC students every month, said Tino Ayala, store manager. Every Sunday, the barbershop has a deal in which students can get a haircut for $8.

"The UC campus has kept our business really going above these economic times, real bad, Great Recession times, you know," he said. "UC campus has helped us very much."

Across the street, Eddie Beltran, co-owner of Cue Spot Billiards on Main Street, said UC Merced students make up about 40 percent of his customers.

"I get a crowd of them all the time that come in here with their laptops because we have Wi-Fi. They sit in here and drink their sodas or drink a beer and do their homework for hours," he said.

Tom Price, editor and publisher of Downtown Life Magazine, said he has taken on several UC student interns.

"Just recently, I've started to see more of an impact," he said. "A lot of people downtown probably anticipated it having a greater impact earlier on in the process."

Price acknowledges that living in Merced could be frustrating for some students. However, he said, they have a unique opportunity to help significantly shape the city's identity.

"A lot of these students may have expected to go to a place like Davis, Chico where there's nightlife and everything built-in, he said. "Now they can come down here and make it themselves. They can start their own club. They can do anything they want out here."

Many people from the university are already contributing to the culture of the city.

Kurt Winbigler, 25, graduated from the university in 2009 and decided to stick around. Recently, he and co-owner Melissa Eisner started a café downtown called Coffee Bandits.

"Merced just has a lot of room to grow and there's a lot of opportunity that you wouldn't get anywhere else," said the Bay Area native. "There's definitely an atmosphere of wanting this place to get better. And it's great."

John Bunce, a 35-year-old UC Merced graduate student, said he recently participated in the Love Merced cleanup, as well as regularly attending the Art Hop and the Market on Main.

The city and the university are developing a shared identity, said the north Merced resident. "I just think it's in its infant stages."

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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