First lady's visit boosted many valley merchants

MERCED -- Now that the glitter has settled from first lady Michelle Obama's visit to the University of California campus, many residents -- especially business owners -- say the event boosted the economy.

"Business was good," said Mike Santos, manager of DeAngelo's Italian Restaurant.

Santos said the restaurant sold more than 50 "Obama Mama" cocktails its bartenders created for the occasion.

The pineapple rum, passion fruit vodka and orange juice concoction was made with top-shelf liquors, Santos said.

"We are still going over the receipts from the weekend," Santos said. "We were at least 50 percent busier on Saturday than a normal weekend."

Another business saw the opposite trend.

Robert Bilyeu, a manager at Applebee's, said the restaurant did less business than expected. On Friday, the restaurant made only $1,000 more than usual. On Saturday, Applebee's made $2,000 less than what it was expecting.

Bilyeu said he thought out-of-town guests would spend more. "We did notice a little bit of a surge (Friday), and that's about it," he said.

Hotels may have fared the best.

Julie Benavidez, front desk manager of the Comfort Inn, which has 65 rooms, had to turn away guests Friday and Saturday. "We did 100 percent both nights," she said. "I think (Michelle Obama) helped Merced out a lot."

Steve Patel, general manager of Best Western, which has 42 rooms, said he had to turn people away Friday. "It's good for Merced," he said. "All over America now, people know about Merced."

Benavidez said hotels in Madera had full occupancy. Other chains referred customers to Turlock and Modesto.

Official numbers to determine the economic impact of the first lady's visit won't be available until quarterly figures are released in August or September, said Frank Quintero, Merced's economic development manager.

Even so, "I would, with confidence, say that we achieved the $1.1 million" target for local business sales above average weekends, Quintero said. "I can tell you the downtown merchants are very happy."