Beleaguered Merced gets a shot in the wallet

Swarms of cycling fans clanging cow bells lined Merced's downtown Wednesday as the Amgen Tour of California launched its fourth stage.

Before and after the excitement, businesses heard the welcome ka-ching of cash registers.

"It was a good boost to the local economy," Ramada Inn general manager Dan Piro said. "We wish we had events every day."

Piro sold 70 of his 113 rooms to the Amgen setup crew, which included people from as far away as Wales.

Most of the rooms would have otherwise been empty, as the winter's a downtime for hotels.

The city can't gauge any one-day spikes in sales tax, though it may look at hotel occupancy to see how that industry was boosted by the event.

It's safe to say that many of the visitors who watched the race would have also grabbed a bite to eat, filled their gasoline tank or bought some Amgen memorabilia.

Amgen coordinators estimate the race pumps $100 million into the state's economy.

But beyond an infusion of cash, the city is buoyed by national and international exposure that can further its support of bicycling.

"Merced is really trying to be at the forefront of a cycling revolution," UC Merced's Cycling Alliance President Elliott Block said.

The 20-year-old, who got Floyd Landis to autograph a jersey, said he was glad to see so many people watching the race.

Residents and city leaders beamed as the Amgen Tour of California racers saw their first day of sunshine as they weaved through downtown.

"I think the city put its best foot forward," Mayor Ellie Wooten said minutes after the race began at N Street. "They're world-class riders. It's amazing."

For at least one day, Mercedians could forget that the city has been ravaged by foreclosures, unemployment and the recession.

"It's really good publicity and gets us out there in a positive light," Mayor Pro Tem John Carlisle said. "It's good considering we're on the top of the bad lists."

Police officers, along with race organizers, estimated that between 12,000 and 15,000 people were spread along the route throughout Merced.

Toni's Courtyard Cafe opened an hour early, 6 a.m., to serve coffee and pastries to reporters and Amgen setup crews, owner Toni Fiorenza said.

She also tweaked the menu so all the dishes were named after stops on the race circuit. And she put her tables in the parking lot.

More than anything else, the event boosted the city's morale in an otherwise trying time.

"Merced's been hit hard," she said. "(Amgen) is something that's new and exciting. Merced is still a vital part of the economy. We haven't been taken off the map."

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or