Merced Mall magnet: 'Power of the Arts'

The Merced Mall is enjoying 14 percent more foot traffic this holiday season than a year ago.

And there are no vacancies.

Marketing manager Bill Taylor says that's because of a $3 million remodeling of the J.C. Penney's store, the opening of Tilly's, a shop for surf, skateboard and other casual gear, and the addition of The Children's Place, a specialty retailer of clothing and accessories for kids.

While those gems in the 68-store mall crown surely shine, there's another reason more people are wandering its clean, bright and airy concourses.

Bill Taylor.

Taylor brings an artist's eye and a musician's ear to his job of promoting the Olive Street shopping center. He was affiliated with the Multicultural Arts Center for a decade before he came to the mall five years ago. And, a few times a year, the dapper promoter sits behind his 1964 Slingerland drum set with fellow Merced native Steve "Mouse" Johnson, recognized nationwide as one of the best blues guitarists around.

They jammed recently at a surprise 60th birthday party for Taylor.

The mall just finished an art design project, and the winning entry from each school got a $50 gift certificate. Three years ago, Taylor started the ShopSmart for Schools program. For each dollar spent at the mall, participating schools get one point. They can redeem those points for cash at the end of the year to spend any way they want.

"During the course of the year, I give out $20,000 to participating schools," he says.

Taylor also promotes the Seasons Greeting Merced Area Reading Association, whose volunteers come to the mall and read to the kids, who get free books. He features entertainment on three stages at the mall. The food court, for instance, hosts carolers from several schools. In the center of the mall the Sierra Chamber Players, a string and flute quartet, charms listeners. A brass ensemble performs regularly over the holiday season.

"The quality of the entertainment is respected by those who see it," Taylor says.

Last Saturday, a flash mob from the First Baptist Church gathered at the mall to sing Handel's "Messiah."

For Taylor, the mission is clear: "How do we keep the tax dollars in Merced? That's my major motivation. I can't make a Macy's appear overnight, so what else can we do to get people here?"

He takes extra pain to ensure security and cleanliness, but he wants visitors to feel welcome for other reasons too. "I still believe strongly in the power of the arts," he says. "We can get it in the schools and give the kids rewards for doing so."

Taylor has shown a creative streak most of his adult life. He designed menus for a couple of restaurants he ran. He wrote news releases for the arts center. He was involved with the conservatory theater, which became Playhouse Merced. And he writes the ad copy for the mall. "Avoid clichés at all costs while being truthful," he says. "And humor helps."

He knows that at bottom, most malls and shopping centers offer the same brands in the same stores. To set off the Merced Mall from others, he relies on creativity.

"I like the old-fashioned ways to celebrate the holidays," he says. The ambience and decorations reflect that traditional mood.

In a 2008 gig in Mariposa now on YouTube, Steve Johnson and Those BOBtones are riffing blues on an outdoor stage. Sitting behind, keeping them tight, is drummer Bill Taylor.

He's trying to do the same at the Merced Mall.

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