Expediting the development of a regional retail center along Highway 99 and continuing to partner with UC Merced on expansion plans will be top priorities of the Merced City Council over the next 12 to 18 months.
The council met last week to set its annual goals, priorities and projects for next year. These are areas city staff will expend a large chunk of time and resources working on, said City Manager John Bramble.
Developing the Mission Avenue and Highway 99 retail center is part of the council’s plan to bolster economic activity, city officials said. The plan includes working with two property owners to prepare a “conceptual development plan” for the 110 acres and coordinating the environmental review process.
The development plan would be presented at international shopping center conferences to attract interest in the area, according to city documents.
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Merced Mayor Stan Thurston said developing the regional center is a high priority because the city is potentially competing with Atwater for a retail development project.
“It’s a matter of getting landowners and developers together so they can start exploring who wants to develop what,” Thurston said. “Growing the economy is what it’s all about. We need to focus on bringing jobs, and the property and sales taxes are what we live by.”
The council identified other top priorities as preparing a plan to attract “wet users” – industries related to food or dairy processing – to the city’s Airport Industrial Park and exploring ways to finance an environmental impact report for development at University Industrial Park.
The city has four industrial parks, but the council placed a focus on developing the three largest ones – University, Airport and Western.
Bramble said food and dairy processing industries are a good match for Merced because of the city’s location.
“We’re in the middle of food-processing country and agriculture has always been an important aspect of our economy, so we’re trying to maximize the ability for people to get full-time jobs,” Bramble said. “We have a readily available workforce with some or a little training that would be eligible to go to work for those operations.”
Remaining priorities include preparing for Merced’s by-district elections in 2016, forming a citizen’s ad hoc committee related to the city’s financial sustainability, establishing a youth council and developing ways to build general fund reserves.
Councilman Michael Belluomini urged the council to make development at the interchange of Campus Parkway and Highway 99 its top priority – calling it the “best interchange in town.” He proposed preparing an industrial-specific plan for that site, costing between $690,000 and $906,000.
Several council members disagreed with putting money into a project they said the property owners did not express interest in.
“He (the property owner) hasn’t come back to us or expressed the least bit of interest in moving forward on anything right now,” said Councilman Tony Dossetti. “I think we need something from the other side before we get to that point.”
Council members also discussed water conservation efforts during the meeting. Water meters will be installed to comply with the state’s water conservation program and motivate residents to cut back on use.
About 40 percent of Merced’s residential properties have water meters now, but the state requires all homes to be on a meter by 2025.
Some council members pushed for water meters sooner because of the drought.
“We have to figure out what we’re going to do in the community to conserve water,” said Mayor Pro Tem Josh Pedrozo. “There’s potential for a drought continuing. We know that water is something that’s very important for Merced, and it’s something we need to get the ball rolling on.”