UC Merced

First Lady's visit a boon for struggling city

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no caption Merced Sun-Star

The president isn't the only one with an economic stimulus plan.

First lady Michelle Obama's commencement speech at UC Merced this afternoon has seen businesses report bottom-line boosts caused by the visitors pouring into town.

Packed hotels are sending people 25 minutes north to Turlock and south to Chowchilla. Car washes have shined SUVs for special commencement guests. One restaurant is baking Obama's favorite dishes.

The bash at the university and downtown should generate $1.1 million for local businesses, city leaders estimate. The figure is based on a tourism revenue formula that included conservative figures for the number of out-of-town people arriving for the weekend.

More valuable than money, many residents think, will be the national exposure to thrust Merced above its reputation as the epicenter of foreclosure and unemployment.

For once, there's a national story in Merced that isn't rooted in despair or tragedy.

Short of helicoptering onto the campus, it's likely Obama will see or otherwise get a sense of some of the economic devastation. Unemployment rates and empty homes, chronicled by The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, can't be dressed up.

So university officials, city leaders and residents are hoping the city shines bright, overshadowing outsiders' earlier misconceptions. After all, there's not much in the near future that will top a visit by the first lady.

"I hope that people would take the time to give our city a chance," Bob's Car Wash co-owner Veronica Mora said. "The word in the past is that we're a ghost town, but we're alive. I think (her visit) will make a difference."

The 15th Street business earlier in the week washed three SUVs that will carry special guests to the university. It's seen a four-fold increase in business, Mora said, with 40 cars passing through some days.

Seven miles north, campus leaders have been busy preparing for the 12,000 people set to converge on the 104-acre campus today. Row after row of white chairs face south toward the stage, large enough to hold a rock band.

Behind the stage is a golden brown backdrop of seemingly endless grassy rangeland. Metal detectors, at a cost of about $5,000, were lined along Scholars Lane. The commencement budget swelled from $100,000 to $700,000 once Obama accepted the invite.

The campus smells of freshly plowed dirt. Crews have built some makeshift roads and dug holes for more trees. International flags snap in the wind.

Downtown, the curbs sport fresh coats of red and green paint. The hedges and trees are neatly trimmed. A banner hangs across G Street with the Cap&Town festival logo -- the Merced Theatre tower with a mortarboard on top.

Toni Fiorenza, owner of the 18th Street cafe that bears her name, began researching Obama's favorite recipes after the visit was announced in March.

She found the first lady's shortbread recipe, a traditional take with dried fruit and nuts added for a twist.

Fiorenza baked the cookies and mixed together the president's tuna salad recipe for one of the VIP tents she's catering on the off-chance that Obama might be snacking before or after the graduation.

"You want to make them feel comfortable," said Fiorenza, who had to pass a background check for the gig.

She renamed the cafe entrees to reflect the event. Eaters can sink their teeth into a Bobcat Burger or nibble on the Chancellor Chicken Pesto.

Like others, Fiorenza said the visit is an chance to redeem the city's image. "The name Merced will be on people's lips," she said. "I think it will put Merced in a whole new light."

Councilman Jim Sanders, who said he's been surviving on caffeine and adrenaline, spent Friday putting the finishing touches on a three-minute DVD about the Cap&Town festival.

The $30,000 event began Friday evening and will continue through tonight.

The DVD will be played in the shuttles taking people to and from the university in hopes of drawing them downtown after the ceremony. Besides advertising the festival, the city is seizing the moment to educate families about Merced's sense of community and history.

All the parents will be able to see the city first-hand and decide whether it's as troubled as they thought, he said. "It's a little oasis in the Valley," he said. "(Visitors) notice the tree-lined streets."

The city's been working to boost its reputation since it first was incorporated. "We saw how quick it turned around during the credit crunch and foreclosure mess," Sanders said.

With the exposure, of course, comes risk. Many longtime residents will remember President Jimmy Carter's town hall meeting at Merced College in 1980 that had the town abuzz. On air, ABC news reporter Sam Donaldson quipped that Merced was a dusty little town on the road to somewhere else.

That barb still sticks with Sanders, who thinks Donaldson wouldn't have said it if he'd spent more time here. The visit by Obama and scores of national media reps is a chance to begin repairing the last few years of damage, he said.

"We can earn a reputation as a place to come and not a place to leave," he said. "That's in response to Mr. Donaldson."

Care for shortbread?

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.