Mike Tharp: 'Mer-dead'? Hardly

UC campus, major retailers, high-speed rail, Merced Theatre, Wal-Mart center -- our town is a happenin’ place

06/04/2011 3:08 AM

06/04/2011 3:34 AM

How about some good news? How about a glass half-full?

Aren't we all tired of the lousy lists we've made the past few years? Don't we want a chance to smile at what's happening hereabouts?

OK. Here we go.

Mayor Bill Spriggs says "a major tenant" will soon occupy the empty Gottschalks building on Olive Avenue. Details to follow. Whoever it is will be better than a vacancy.

Mr. Mayor also says our city manager and development director just took a one-day trip to Vegas and found "a major retailer" has put Merced "in its capital plans" in the next two to three years.

The G Street project is ahead of schedule, he says, as he waits to turn his Honda CRV from MLK Way east onto 16th. The high-speed rail folks now want the station to be there instead of at R Street. The mayor (whose dad worked for the Santa Fe as a station agent) says that means the proposed tracks won't have to be elevated through Merced. Which saves a lot of money and time.

"Within a 60-mile radius of Fresno and a 60-mile radius of Merced, Merced has more population," the mayor says, counting on some of those folks as passengers on the 220 mph train to the future.

Then he drives out on Gerard, where the proposed Wal-Mart distribution center will be if it goes forward. As his rig bounces over potholes, the mayor shoots down, one by one, opponents' arguments about why the project shouldn't come here. Take the 900 truck trips a day opponents say will be made once the center is up and running. Spriggs says the most number of trucks in a day at Wal-Mart's Apple Valley distribution center has been 350.

Too close to schools? He's reckoned the distance at three-fourths of a mile from the center's property line to Pioneer School. The distribution center land is zoned commercial and industrial, he says, not residential.

And despite the long drawn-out resistance, the giant retailer is coming. "Wal-Mart is committed," he says. "They own the land. They know they're fighting this battle because they're Wal-Mart."

Our mayor, by definition, is a booster. But his blue-sky forecast offers a refreshing change from the gloom-and-doom mood that has hung over our county like tule fog for far too long. We'll find out if he's right, won't we?

Meanwhile, here's more blue sky. Our friends and colleagues Sara Sandrik and Alex Ruiz of Channel 30, who work in our newsroom, did a story Thursday about how real estate agents are crediting UC Merced students with helping to boost the local housing market.

The Fresno ABC affiliate quoted Realtor Loren Gonella as saying he's seen a recent surge of renting big houses near campus. The parents of some students are buying investment properties near UC Merced, "encouraging more investors to buy rental properties here, especially while prices are so low."

And another half-full glass. The $14.4 million Merced Theatre restoration project has benefited from some creative financial architecture so that tax credits account for 45 percent of the project's funding. "The city never put in a dime from the General Fund," says Dan Ainsle, the city's development manger, as he stands beneath the scaffolding in the 1930s era building. Adds Grey Roberts, treasurer of the restoration foundation, "Individual donors are what made this possible."

Backers envision the finished product as a venue for all kinds of revenue-generating events -- speakers brought here by UC Merced, weeklong performances of Star Wars and Indiana Jones sagas, the Merced symphony, Playhouse Merced, rock groups. All that leads to rental income.

Finally, as a vibrant example of the local arts and culture scene, the Courthouse Museum offers us a compelling array of permanent and rotating exhibits. Some residents ask, who needs history? Why not use the money to keep cops and firefighters?

Because the Merced County Historical Society provides the lion's share of the money to run the museum. The county pays only for maintenance and the salary of director Sarah Lim, a jewel of a curator who could work for any major museum in America or Asia.

We need to know who, what and where we have been as a county of communities in order to grow into the kind of place we want our children and grandchildren to cherish. Some 125 volunteers join Sarah and Herb Wood to preserve our past to ensure our future. That's a big deal.

Some of you will view all this as whistling past the graveyard. Some of you will mutter "Mer-dead."

That's your right.

But it's time to look up. To raise our gaze to see the positives unfolding all around us. To focus on the horizon as we climb -- slowly but surely -- out of the valley of depression (in both senses of the word) we've been crossing the last four years.

The editor's father used to tell the whole family "RMA" -- right mental attitude -- as a way to move beyond the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Let's try a little RMA. Look around at the good news happening now. If you tour the Courthouse Museum, you'll see that RMA has been in our DNA for a long time.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

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