MERCED — At the year's halfway point, businesses appear to be looking at Merced with greater optimism.
"The businesses that were looking to come into Merced in the past that put their projects on hold, they're coming back," said Frank Quintero, Merced's economic development director.
Quintero said it's too early in the process to give company names, but he's meeting with firms who want to evaluate the city. Besides the businesses that are giving the city another look, he said other companies have been in contact with him.
He said he agrees with a study by Stockton's University of the Pacific that predicts slow and steady growth in Merced. The study predicts more than 2 percent job growth in the area through 2016.
"We will continue to see activity grow in Merced," Quintero said, particularly downtown.
Quintero said the area is experiencing a boost from some entrepreneurs who have been drawn to the city's entertainment hub, and the new businesses on Main Street are a welcome sight to some downtown patrons.
"I hope that it keeps progressing in that direction," Melissa Beckwith, 32, said.
The Merced-area nanny said she spends many hours in downtown at Playhouse Merced.
"It's a good area historically; the buildings are really great," Beckwith said. "It would be nice to keep the focus down here."
A new bar and eatery downtown are the latest signs of an uptick in business activity, as is a boat dealer at the edge of Main Street.
A beer and wine bar, 17th Street Public House, flung open its doors for the first time Thursday. The business at 315 W. Main St., which specializes in craft beers and wine, is owned by the same partners who run The Partisan.
R.C. Essig, 33, said the bar has a laid-back atmosphere, and sports 18 beers on tap and 29 in the bottle.
"This place is all about networking, and being able to drink and talk to people," Essig said, "and not really have to have a DJ or whatever event."
Essig said the craft beers take advantage of a niche market, so it can be successful while not hurting other bars in the area. "I never step on toes," he said.
Another upstart, At The Pier, moved into downtown on June 5. Kris Bruns, who opened the business with wife Sherry, said the eatery at 439 W. Main St. offers hot dogs, clam chowder and funnel cakes, among other foods you might find at the beach.
"I do a lot of motorcycle riding up and down the coast," the 45-year-old said. "I thought, 'It's the kind of foods I like, so (I'll) try this.' "
One sign of an improving economy to Todd Gaughn is the increase in boat manufacturing and sales.
The 34-year-old opened Central Valley Power Sports, 1775 V St., on June 29. "Jobs are on the rise, boat sales are on the rise, there's a region that has existing sales and customers," Gaughn said, referring to the Merced area. "It's an opportunity."
The dealer sells boats made by Centurion, Supreme and Polaris. Gaughn said he specializes in inboard motorboats, which are primarily used for wakeboarding.
Not every part of Merced is seeing growth, though.
Quintero said south Merced has not seen much change. Plans for a neighborhood shopping center near Childs Avenue and Canal Street hit some snags.
He said the state's decision to squash redevelopment agencies in 2012, and phase out the Enterprise Zone Program this year could slow growth in south Merced.
"That makes trying to draw an investor or a retailer into an underserved area very difficult," he said.
Retail stores have proven cautious in the first part of the year, Quintero said. "They're really studying the numbers and making sure our market can support whatever their business model is," he said.
The existing retail stores should continue to do well, Quintero said, as places like the Merced Mall and Merced Market Place continue to draw from the entire region.
Reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.