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Back to work building Merced's third high school

Artist rendering of the planned Bellevue Road area high school.
Artist rendering of the planned Bellevue Road area high school. Merced Sun-Star

Ground will be broken in less than three months on Merced's third high school -- and the county might be able to add another "R" to the "three Rs" -- recovery.

The $76.4 million project at G Street and a brand-new Farmland Avenue is expected to have a positive impact on the area's struggling economy.

The school's primary contractor, Bernards Brothers Builders and Management Services of Fresno, is committed to spending at least half the construction dollars locally by hiring Merced workers and companies.

"This will help all of us," said Scott Crawford, president of the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce. "We've had a huge decline in building and construction here in the last few years. Anything that infuses money into the local economy, the chamber will support, especially job creation."

San Jose-based architect Paul Bunton of Bunton Clifford Associates termed the prospective campus situated on 12 acres of a 58-acre site an elegant school. "This is going to be an incredible high school facility," Bunton said. "A lot of thought was put into the overall project. It will be a 21st century learning environment and I'm very proud of its safety features."

Raynee Daley, Merced Union High School District deputy superintendent, said officials are excited about the 50 percent requirement of local construction expenditures and said Merced area residents will benefit from the project. "We have a board and superintendent who are forward-thinking," Daley said. "In a time where school districts are paralyzed by fear, we continue to plan how our kids can get the best possible education."

Trustee Tim O'Neill said he hopes the yet-to-be-named high school will put a lot of people to work.

"I'm pleased we're finally moving forward and planning for the future," O'Neill said. "It's been a long process with lots of variables. With everything I read, ultimately the San Joaquin Valley is California's next growth frontier."

At last week's board meeting when the Bernards contract was approved, trustees Dave Honey and Sam Spangler voted against the project. Honey said Tuesday he's a financial conservative and there's little margin for error.

"We should hold off a year or two," Honey said. "If anything goes wrong, I don't know what we would do. I'm afraid the municipal bonds, now at an historic low, will increase on interest rates. With 21 percent unemployment, people aren't going to hang around here when there are no jobs -- and I'm afraid of a double-dip recession."

Honey said enrollment has dropped 450 students in the past four years and another 144-student drop is expected. He said enrollment levels may come back but it will be awhile before that happens.

Spangler didn't return calls for comment.

Fresno-based Gary Lowe, who manages Bernards' Central Valley operations, said the company is committed to local participation in the building process.

Lowe said he's putting together an outreach committee composed of chamber, economic development, state Employment Development Department and builders' groups to make connections with the local labor force.

"It's a beautiful campus," Lowe said. "I think we have maximized the 'value engineering' aspect and the campus will still have the same look to it."

Michael Belluomini, the district's director of facilities planning, said the public will be asked for its help this month and in April in naming the new campus. A committee will review suggestions, and trustees will choose a school name in mid-May.

Although the building site is bigger, the new campus will be similar in size to Golden Valley High School, completed in 1994. Merced High School's campus on West Olive Avenue was built in 1958 when the town had North Campus and East Campus on G Street.

The state Allocations Board authorized $1.7 billion in new school funding at its Dec. 15 meeting. The Bellevue high school campus will be funded with $35 million from the state and Measure M funds approved by district voters in November 2008, Belluomini said.

Bunton, who has been involved with the design since the school was proposed seven years ago, said the new school will feature a culinary arts academy. The two-story buildings face into an interior quadrangle, making it a safe and secure environment for students. The district got a $600,000 state grant for its energy-efficient environmental designs.

Dave Spaur, chief executive officer of the Merced County Economic Development Corp., said the project will be a shot in the arm for the local economy. "More jobs for Merced, we like it," Spaur said. "It's good to get construction jobs back, seeing that residential building will be flat for the next couple of years. This is really good news for us."

"I'm happy to see we're finally making real progress," Trustee Mike Carpenter said.

"This has been in the planning process for years, with lots of starts and stops. I'm pleased with the element in the contract, which will do a lot to help the local economy. I live in that area and just went by the site; they are starting to disc the field. We will start to see some evidence of progress. Overall it's a real good design and I think people will be pleased with the aesthetics of it."

Bob McLaughlin, Mercy Medical Center spokesman, said the $265 million hospital, which opened in May 2010, employed 450 workers from all over the San Joaquin Valley at the peak of its construction. He said the hospital used local contractors whenever possible during the three-year build.

UC Merced will continue to grow, which is a major driver of population increases. It will be good not to have overcrowding at Merced and Golden Valley campuses, O'Neill said.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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