University of California, Merced, students are returning to campus. And as they spend money, an inevitable boost to the local economy will unfold.
UC Merced officials expect almost 1,500 new students this year, bringing the total student population to more than 4,000.
That's in addition to the more than 10,000 students enrolled at Merced College.
Walking along Main Street, there's no overt sign that businesses are targeting students, aside from one banner hanging in front of Big Bubbas Bad to the Bone BBQ on the corner of M and 18th streets.
But local business are reaching out to students -- by coming to campus or offering special deals at their stores and promoting them online.
According to Frank Quintero, city development manger, some downtown businesses have started to announce deals and events on their Facebook pages or are tweeting about them.
For instance, J&R Tacos announced on its Facebook page Sunday that it will offer burritos for $4 Monday.
Many downtown stores display small signs in their windows indicating they are part of a student discount program called CatSpots, an incentive sponsored by the UC Merced Alumni Association for students who pledge $10 for a CatSpots card.
In the next few days, local businesses will try to harness the new campus buying power by participating in a number of on-campus and off-campus events.
Businesses join the fair
For the first time, UC Merced will hold three fairs on campus for students, one featuring local businesses; another with nonprofits, faith-based groups and service organizations; and a third for student clubs and organizations.
The school never had staged a fair just for businesses, said Jay Greenwood, UC Merced student life coordinator.
Along with UC Merced, J&R Tacos will be offering one free menu item to about 250 students Sept. 25 as part of a back-to-school event, said Janna Rodriguez, one of the co-owners of J&R Tacos.
Students make up more than half the restaurant's clientele, said J&R Tacos co-owner Oscar Torres. The restaurant loses about one-third of its business when students are on vacation.
"If we bring in $500 a day when students are in town, we will make $300 a day when they are gone," he said.
One downtown restaurant plans to change its focus this year to try to become more student-friendly.
Marshall Bishop, owner of Bishop's on the Square, said he toned down the restaurant's fine-dining quality and made food more affordable for students.
It used to be that items on his menu hovered at about $20, but now there's nothing on the dinner menu more expensive than $16, he said.
He plans to install a wood-burning stove so he can sell pizza by the slice, a feature that many college towns offer but is lacking in downtown Merced, he said.
Today, about 250 freshmen will hop on a shuttle from UC Merced and tour downtown Merced as part of a school-sponsored event.
City activities promoted
Steve Roussos, director of Alliance for Community Research and Development, said one of the city's and school's goals is to promote activities in the community so new students won't leave on weekends.
"We want to make it as welcoming as possible," he said.
One way the city has kept the welcome mat out is by extending the SummerFest until the first week of September, Greenwood said.
Even with the expected jump in spending power, there won't be a major increase the number of new businesses popping up downtown, Quintero said.
"Four thousand students is definitely an economic benefit," Quintero said. "When students hit 7,000 to 10,000, that's when students become a significant factor for retailers. Retailers are waiting for students to cross into that critical mass point."