Merced's Challenge

MERCED — Main Street's sidewalks are swept, downtown trees are festooned with lights, decorative banners sway in the breeze. Merced is ready to shine for first lady Michelle Obama's visit today. But leaders hope Obama and other officials get a glimpse of Merced's darker realities, too.

This city of about 80,000 residents is walking a fine line during this historic visit. Leaders want visitors to leave with happy memories of a town that's not well-known outside the Central Valley. But they also want to bring attention — and the money that comes with it — to the long list of ills that plague Merced: a foreclosure epidemic among the worst in the nation, chronic poverty and an unemployment rate climbing past 20 percent.

"It's the old adage about how you need to paint the picture, but there's also a story to be told," said

Development Manager Frank Quintero. "We'll put our best foot forward to paint that picture, but the story to be told is, we need help from the federal government."

As many as 25,000 people are expected to visit Merced for the commencement of the University of California at Merced's first four-year class, where Obama will speak at 1:30 p.m. The city is celebrating the event — easily the most high-profile in a generation — with a two-day Cap&Town Festival. Obama's speech will be broadcast on a Jumbotron downtown. People can sample local restaurant food and compete in "Guitar Hero" contests.

A boost for local economy

To ready for the logistical challenge of that many guests, officials sent letters to grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants, warning that shelves should be well-stocked, gas storage tanks full and kitchens ready to serve.

Merced's 1,000 hotel rooms are expected to be 80 percent full. Visitor spending could pump $1.1 million into the local economy, Quintero said. The event's impact already has been felt in small ways, said city spokesman Mike Conway. A downtown restaurant has 125 bookings for tonight. Usually it seats 40. A carwash got a job detailing three cars in the first lady's motorcade, Conway said.

Officials also are looking for the Obama visit to produce less easily measured outcomes.

With media outlets — including Geraldo Rivera, Newsweek and the BBC — descending on Merced, Quintero sees a chance to "rebrand" Merced as "a university community."

"Right now our brand is, a community to stay away from, that has a high number of foreclosures, high unemployment, a city that's doom and gloom," Quintero said. "I think this will shed some light that we're not the city that the press has made us out to be."

The up-and-coming university town is the image the city looked forward to when UC Merced opened in fall 2005. Excitement around the campus fueled a real estate bubble that pushed home prices to an all-time high. Developers got busy, pulling a record number of building permits the year the campus opened.

The city seemed poised for prosperity. A year after the campus opened, unemployment sank to 6.7 percent, the lowest level in decades.

The good times didn't last. The bottom fell out of the real estate market. Foreclosures filled neighborhoods with dark windows and brown yards. Building screeched to a halt. Half-finished houses were left to bleach in the sun.

UC Merced was dogged by its own problems. Expected enrollment numbers failed to materialize (some 450 students are eligible to participate in this year's ceremony). Delays in federal permits stalled the school's expansion plans.

Officials will get a welcome break from the steady stream of bad headlines this weekend.

"Hopefully, it will be an opportunity for the city to be seen in a positive light instead of being at the top of a lot of the bad lists that we seem to be making regularly," said City Councilman John Carlisle. (A 2007 book rating the desirability of America's cities ranked Merced at No. 370 out of 373 places nationwide; Modesto finished last.)

Doing some 'show and tell'

Carlisle and others say Obama's visit could bring more results than positive press. Like, say, a new road project or two, said City Councilman Bill Spriggs.

Spriggs said the event will give local leaders a chance to do some "show and tell" with state and federal officials who rarely, if ever, visit Merced. He and other officials make annual pilgrimages to Washington, D.C., and Sacramento to plead for funding for highway improvements and other projects. The group is lucky if its gets a 15-minute sit-down in U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office, Spriggs said. The meeting is the one chance to show the senator, or her staff, a list of projects Merced needs federal funding to build.

This weekend, Feinstein and others will see firsthand where projects like the long-planned Campus Parkway — a roadway to connect Highway 99 to the campus — could be built, Spriggs said. Officials such as Feinstein have been invited to all the UC Merced graduations, but usually don't show up, said university spokeswoman Tonya Luiz.

Spriggs said having so many influential officials in Merced will be invaluable. "You can't replicate that," he said. "You can't just go to Sacramento and sit in a hearing room and say we've got a campus with kids. This lets them see those kids."

Merced officials have long complained that the region has all the despair of Appalachia, but none of the name recognition. Carlisle said Merced has been ignored by federal programs, including the current stimulus package. He's hoping Obama will "get an earful" about local and state problems when she's in the handshake line at commencement.

Although it's not likely, Carlisle said he'd like Obama to drive through Bellevue Ranch, a vast complex of subdivisions two miles west of campus. Some sections are blighted with half-built neighborhoods, abandoned when developers left town.

"In reality, those are things she can't really do anything about directly, but she definitely has indirect influence," Carlisle said. "And once you've been somewhere, even if it's an in-and-out trip, it's a little bit easier to empathize with the folks there."

He added, "Hopefully we'll make a positive impression, but at the same time let her see what's going on out here. I certainly wouldn't want to gloss over the reality when we have a rare opportunity to get the ear of someone that influential."

The face of foreclosure

Real estate agent Andy Krotik, a former Atwater City Council member, said he's hoping the visit will highlight the impact of the foreclosure crisis on rural communities. Officials don't realize the toll foreclosures have taken in smaller communities, he said. That's why Merced County was "left out" of a housing bill Congress passed last fall, he said.

"I didn't vote for this woman's husband, but I'm glad she's coming," Krotik said. "Because I want her husband to know the devastation that's going on in our community."

As for the sunny headlines the visit will bring, Krotik said those don't mean much to him.

Three weeks ago, a fellow real estate professional called Krotik in a panic, he said. Merced had been featured on a "Good Morning America" segment about foreclosures. Krotik's friend said, "We need to do something. We need to get a group together and get some positive press." Krotik told him to relax. "I said, no, as along as they're talking about us, it's good."

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at or 578-2378.

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