MERCED — University of California professor Ruth Mostern bought a 1920s house on a tree-lined street near downtown when she moved to Merced about five years ago.
Her employer, the new UC Merced, was sprouting six miles away on an old golf course rimmed mainly by cow pastures.
Mostern, a world historian with an emphasis on imperial Chinese history and political geography, chose an established neighborhood over the rural fringe partly to support the Main Street economy and culture.
"I feel like I've really found a way to make myself a part of the community," said Mostern, who takes in local theater productions and the farmers market with her husband and daughter.
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City and UC officials point to such examples as the ties that bind the mid-sized city and the central San Joaquin Valley's first research university. It's a match made in the mid-1990s, when the Merced community wooed and won the UC's 10th campus.
Some say there's still more than a geographic gap between the two communities. But many on both sides of the union say the town-gown relationship is solid even through hiccups of slow economic growth and UC-related speculation that helped fuel the city's foreclosure crisis.
About 70 percent of university faculty and staff live in Merced County, according to UC statistics. Some serve on boards ranging from redevelopment agencies to the United Way.
"They're definitely becoming members of the community," said Mike Conway, spokesman for the city of about 81,000 residents. "It's just a matter of time before one of them runs for City Council."
The University of California at Merced, the first new UC campus since 1965, opened in fall 2005 with 875 students and 42 faculty. It launched with little more than student housing and a library ready for classes.
Now, the campus has about 3,400 students and more than 1,200 faculty and staff. In May, the pioneering class of 2009 scored a coup when first lady Michelle Obama gave the commencement speech.
In October, UC officials announced that the university had contributed nearly $456 million in direct economic value to the San Joaquin Valley since it began operations in 2000.
Boom a factor in foreclosures
But the campus also drove speculation that has factored into Merced's foreclosure rate, which leads the nation. Several officials recount stories of outside investors shuttling between real estate open houses in vans, buying up investment property ahead of UC construction.
Then the bubble burst.
"People went too fast and a little too aggressive in the housing market because they were going to make some pretty good money," said former mayor Ellie Wooten. "You can't really blame the university."
Payoffs have been slow to come. Frank Quintero often hears that as the city's development manager.
Students want laser tag, rock-climbing and nightclubs for both the over- and under-21 set. Others wonder when franchises such as The Elephant Bar or Nordstroms will open.
Quintero said the "retail reality" is that the city isn't big enough to lure some of the biggest names. He doesn't predict much change in the retail mix until the city grows to about 100,000 and the campus hits 7,000 to 10,000 students.
But, Quintero added, the campus has "brought a brand to Merced" that boosts its capability to lure lucrative commercial, research and industrial businesses.
For now, though, most retail fish aren't whoppers.
Alexander Lu-Pon, who owns Forté Frozen Yogurt on Main Street, launched his business in May. Lu-Pon, a graduate of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, said he wanted to start a niche business in a college town. Self-serve frozen yogurt seemed to be the ticket.
Now, he's trying to cultivate town-gown relationships through music, karaoke and poetry jams. Other businesses, such as the Partisan bar, schedule art, music and literature nights.
Frederick Young, a lecturer in the UC Merced writing program, helped set up Partisan's "Lines of Flight" for writers and musicians. Young, who is from the Bay Area, said he is trying to create a more bohemian atmosphere for artists.
He acknowledged some culture shock moving to Merced in 2008.
Now, he said, "I'm getting to know the community a lot better. I think there's a lot of energy."
Santa has arts gift to give
The arts community gained another asset through the university.
Staci Santa, who is married to a UC professor, was hired as executive director of the Merced County Arts Council in 2007.
Santa and her husband relocated from Tucson, Arizona, in 2006. She said she saw the three-story arts center, which includes gallery space, classrooms and a theater, and thought: "That is my oasis."
Santa, who has a master's degree in nonprofit management and a history of working in the arts, started at the council in a temporary capacity. Based on some online research, she worried the town might resist change or new people.
"I felt like I was going to have to have my dukes up when I moved here, but the reality is very different," Santa said. "People have been very welcoming."
Flip Hassett, executive director of United Way of Merced County, said Santa and other UC-related folks have helped nonprofits in many ways. For example, students and faculty put together a video for United Way's new campaign.
"It's been a nice relationship," he said.
But others say there's not enough connection.
Don Bergman, support service manager for Courtesy Chevrolet Cadillac, said he sees the same dozen or so UC people in the community. Although UC representatives serve on many local boards, they aren't necessarily visible to the general public, he said.
"I would love to see a closer relationship between the community and the UC, and I think it will happen as it grows," he said.
From Forté Yogurt, Lu-Pon said he still occasionally sees "a disconnect" between local residents and UC folks.
"And people are still adjusting to seeing a pack of six or eight students going to the store for just one thing," he added.
Mostern, the UC professor, said she's delighted with her choice.
Her family lives within walking distance of downtown shops and close to the Amtrak station.
When they crave more choices in the arts and dining, they head to San Francisco.
"Slowly we're going to see some larger and more vibrant cultural institutions, and that's great," Mostern said. "But I like living here."