A group of youths gathered at the Merced Civic Center on Saturday to brainstorm ideas to improve the city for young people and to talk about changes they would like to see.
Saturday’s Youth Assembly gave about 25 students between the eighth and 12th grades from Merced schools a chance to freely sound off about their ideas, looking at seven categories: restaurants, jobs, cleaning up the city/caring for the homeless, stores, entertainment, parks and recreation and communication.
The event was organized by the Merced Youth Task Force, which includes a group of students and adult advisers who are working toward the goal of creating a youth task force.
The group dug right into the topics and wrote down their ideas on a large note pad for each category. After a lunch break, students placed stickers next to their favorite ideas. Some of the most popular items included seeking new businesses for the city, for example, restaurants like Olive Garden and Elephant Bar.
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Hunter Noble, 17, a Merced High senior and task force chairman, mediated much of the discussion. “They call us the future of Merced, so I think we should have a say in the actual future of Merced,” he said.
Increased job opportunities and a cleaner city rank high on the youths’ wish list. “I know we have some bad reputations and I think we’re trying to take those off and make ourselves just a better overall city,” Noble said. “If you look at all of the things we have (on the lists), people want these chain restaurants like Cheesecake Factory and Red Robin. We want to be like a real big city, I guess you could say, and put us on the map.”
City spokesman Mike Conway said the chosen categories of discussion are the result of polling done at Golden Valley, El Capitan and Merced high schools.
City officials asked students how they would like to change and improve Merced and received more than 300 different answers. Conway said the information will be submitted to the city’s economic development department. The information will prove helpful, he said, when city officials meet with potential clients, indicating the types of businesses young people would like to see come to the area.
“What’s critical for me is to find out what the community wants and how to package it,” Frank Quintero, economic development director, told the group. Having a list of what the community is looking for will help him when he goes to an international retail forum in two weeks, he said.
Quintero explained companies look at such factors as population, income and education before deciding to set up shop. “Now, you look at Panera Bread, their first week of opening broke sales records between Stockton to Bakersfield. Guess what that franchisee is telling other people? Take a look at Merced, you’ll get treated well,” he said.
Quintero asked the youths whether they had heard the term “Mer-dead” used to describe the city’s supposed lack of activities. Everyone in the room raised a hand.
“It is so important about what you say, and how you talk about your community,” he said. “Why? Because there may be someone from that company, in plain clothes, asking you questions about what you think of your community ... We’ve had instances where they’ve gone and asked people about the community. The store never came in,” he added.
“On the other side, people have been very responsive and said ‘Yes, this is a great community to be in,’ and the stores have come in.”