Sometime before the State of the City address last week, Merced Mayor Mike Murphy must have been thinking about his own legacy of leadership in the annals of local government and the community at large.
It was, of course, his last speech for the annual event he molded to fit his leadership style.
Murphy is less than a year away from the end of his second and final term as mayor. Previously, he served as a City Council member for an extended 5-year term.
More than once during that time, he shared with this reporter a personal story about being raised in a hard-working family of modest means, and becoming a first-generation college graduate. Later, he would say being mayor of Merced was the honor of a lifetime.
And indeed, Murphy repeated that sentiment at the start of his speech, adding: “Very few people in this world get the opportunity to be the mayor of their hometown.”
So there he was, standing alone on stage, under the spotlight of the historic Merced Theatre.
The representatives of both business chambers — the Hispanic and Greater Merced — had spoken. Two of Murphy’s own children, Walker and Abigale, had sang “Rainbow Connection” in an opening number. An upbeat video montage of people enjoying life in Merced had been shown on the big screen. And the winners of a citywide contest, the “Q-T’s,” had wowed the crowd with their rendition of the National Anthem.
The place was packed too, and that’s hard to do on a Friday morning in a venue that can hold 1,200 people. But the mayor did point out: Government teachers had students bussed in from local high schools, and they all filled the seats in the upper level.
So much fanfare, and all the while, many residents in the audience, and the “who’s who” of Merced, knew there wasn’t even a State of the City before Murphy came to the scene — at least not in the form of a high-profile event on Main Street complete with a partial street closure, and police and fire department vehicles on display.
Mayor Murphy started and ended his State of the City address in an attempt to put the focus on his fellow Mercedians, urging them to act on their dreams, to become civically engaged, and to do what they can “to strengthen the fabric of our community.” He brought up the city’s pioneers who built the railroads, the highways, the lake and canals, and all of downtown, and he said together we can accomplish things that future generations will look back on with gratitude.
Yet there was the juicy stuff in between — the “downloads,” if you will, of what’s happening and what’s to come in 2020.
News that Fresno-based Tioga-Sequioa Brewing Company is going to set up a taproom on the bottom floor of the new Tioga apartment complex downtown was met with the sounds of oohs and aahs.
Murphy said the city had received a building permit application from Ulta Beauty, a national beauty chain, to set up shop inside the old Sears building at the Merced Mall. The company is expected to join Burlington Coat Factory and Five Below at the site.
The mayor once again praised the addition of Bitwise — a growing tech-training firm that’s going to be housed at M and Main Streets. That’s across the street from the $15 million El Capitan Hotel renovation project that will feature 114 rooms in a fashionable boutique setting. Down the block the Mainzer Theater, also being restored, will feature a sit-down restaurant, a dinner-stage theater, movies and four bowling lanes. And, of course, the historic Tioga next door is transforming into a stunning 73,670-square-foot modern apartment building.
On the east side of town, Dutch Bros. Coffee and a Rally’s fast food restaurant are coming to Childs Avenue near Golden Valley High School.
Mayor Murphy also highlighted the “Merced Gateway Center” near the Campus Parkway Project. He said infrastructure is being put in for the 77-acre “travel oasis, lifestyle and town center” with a “entertainment and multi-family component.”
Across the way, he said, the Campus Parkway Plaza has plans for a five-story Hilton-branded hotel and conference center, two sit-down restaurants, two fast-food pads and a gas station.
Pointing to the north, Murphy praised a planned new development to create medical offices, a hotel, apartments, retail stores and restaurants on 21 acres located at the corner of Yosemite Avenue and G Street.
Last year, Murphy called the issue of homelessness the city’s top concern, and this year he continued by saying the city is ready to welcome a new low-barrier shelter to get more people off the street. He mentioned the soon-to-be implemented Homeless Court that will help homeless residents with minor offenses to re-enter society and gain employment.
According to Murphy, one of the city’s biggest needs is more housing, and he admitted the vacancy rate is down to 1 percent.
“We need housing in all sizes and all price ranges,” he said. “This year we issued permits for nearly 700 homes. In addition, there are permits for over 550 apartment units that are in the works.”
The mayor said the city is making investments in its youth. He said 7,609 kids were involved in the different programs offered through the Parks and Recreation Department.
He announced they will be opening a new youth recreation facility at the old fire station at 27th and K streets near John Muir Elementary.
Also, the city purchased a new “Block Party To-Go” trailer that will be offered to residents along with encouragement to create gatherings to get to know neighbors, create unity, and brainstorm neighborhood improvements.
The Merced Open Air Theater is undergoing renovations, and the venue is expected to hold a lot more concert and entertainment shows this summer.
In a carefully worded statement included in his speech, Mayor Murphy said the city put three “important” measures on the March 3 election ballot.
If approved, Measure K would extend the current two-year mayoral term to four years, but it would keep the rule that individuals can only serve two terms as mayor.
He said Measure L “would establish a Citizen Stipend Setting Commission that would set a maximum stipend that would limit compensation for elected officials.”
What he didn’t say was that the city is trying to create a citizen- and voter-approved pathway for City Council members to actually receive more money in the form of a paid position. Right now, they receive a nominal stipend. A Merced City Council seat has basically been a volunteer position for as long as anyone can remember, and this new measure would change that if voters approve it.
And Measure M, if approved, would establish more direct reporting from the city financial officer to the mayor and city council.
With regards to roads and traffic improvements, Murphy noted that road projects are being conducted on M Street, N Street and Yosemite Avenue. He also took time to point out that city workers have been busy filling potholes — 38,140 last year alone.
He urged residents to report potholes through the “Merced Connect App,” promising that the potholes are filled within two business days.
At the end of Murphy’s speech, there were applauds and cookies in the lobby.
The response from residents was overwhelmingly positive.
The comments sounded like one-line reviews on a movie poster or a book cover.
“Another super home run … Immensely education … Spirit raising … A tremendous experience” — and that was from just one audience member, Lee Pevsner, a former city employee.
“It keeps getting better and better,” said Joe Ramirez, chairman of the board for the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce.
The President of the Tioga-Sequioa Brewing Company was present and he told the Times: “We thought the event was very special. I can’t wait to see the aftermath of our announcement. We have been looking for three years for the right community to add our second home. Merced checks all the boxes. We feel it’s a great choice for us.”
Local school board member, Shane Smith, found the speech inspiring. “I love the fact that kids were part of the State of the City,” he said, adding that the new MCSD Superintendent Al Rogers was in attendance. “All schools were part of the tapestry of Merced that was represented today.”
Steve Simmons, a 50-year resident of Merced, said the speech shows Merced has a great future ahead.
“If we didn’t, I wouldn’t have my house on East Main Street, and I wouldn’t have my business in downtown Merced,” he said.
Longtime Atwater resident Lamont Williams drove down to hear Murphy, and he said: “I’m glad to know that some flesh is coming back to the bones of Merced.”
In fact, this reporter could not find a single person who would go on the record with something critical of Murphy’s words.
Of course, there were rumblings, and no State of the City speech is beyond criticism.
One person who did not want to be named lamented that the speech was light on new industry coming into town, new well-paying job opportunities, new activities to keep young people engaged in positive behavior and new “citywide” park improvements.
Another questioned why the new brewery got so much attention — after all, it’s been tried before at the old firehouse on 18th Street, and it’s for adults who drink alcohol. So why mention a brewery and not mention — at all — the new cannabis dispensaries that have opened in town over the past year? The Blue Fire outlet on Olive Avenue and two locations downtown are apparently filled with customers on a daily basis. What’s going on with the cannabis tax revenue that is supposed to go to Parks and Recreation?
Nevertheless, the reaction of 16-year-old Molly Wendel stood out above the noise. She attended the speech as part of Josh Pedrozo’s AP History class at Merced High.
“I was expecting it to be a little boring, but I really liked it,” she said excitedly. “There’s just a lot going on in Merced, especially in the downtown area. I had no idea any of this was happening — a new brewery and a major tech company. I think many people are not aware of all the progress that’s being made.”
Interestingly, as the audience members slowly made their way outside, one of the last people to leave was Mayor Murphy himself. He lingered around the lobby, chatting with those left, mostly staff members.
Perhaps he was trying to take in the moment as much as he could.
His speech might be the culmination of what will end up being a nine-year public service run at City Hall. It remains to be seen because 2020 will offer several more opportunities to shine with all the expected ribbon-cuttings of major projects.
Still, the mayor had to be satisfied knowing that most of the people in the room were very familiar with the catch-phrase he coined in his first State of the City speech: “A City On The Rise.”
This reporter remembers another thing Murphy said in a past conversation: “I don’t want to look back at these two or four years of my life, and have any regrets. I don’t want to leave anything undone that could have been done. To use a sports analogy, I want to leave it all on the field.”
Well, it’s not over yet, but there’s no doubt that the State of the City event has helped Murphy elevate the position of Merced Mayor to a much more prestigious position than ever before.
Perhaps the final word — at least for now — was graciously given by a current supervisorial candidate, and one of Murphy’s political rivals in the mayoral race just four years ago.
“I’m very proud of the last four years, and it has been a lot of fun to see the city grow as we move forward,” said Josh Pedrozo. “Murphy has done a very good job leading the city … Whoever takes over next year will have some really big shoes to fill.”
A link to Mayor Murphy’s State of the City address and video can be found on the home page of the city’s website at cityofmerced.org.