The post-election Merced City Council meeting on Monday night was a feel-good affair with leaders approving a variety of state grants to support Police Department public safety services, equipment and vehicles; along with a partnership to develop four to five single-family homes for “very-low income families” on city-owned vacant lots, and an application to pursue funding for a new park playground.
Last February, leaders voted to name a significant community park site in the Bellevue Ranch subdivision in north Merced as General Vang Pao Park — the first city park named after a member of the Hmong community. The fun zone inside it was to be called Aletha June Playground, named after a local woman who championed improved access for challenged residents with different abilities.
The vacant site at Freemark Avenue and Heitz Way is ready to go, but it needs funding sources in a city with plenty of park needs.
One source that has come about recently is the Safe Play Initiative Project through the organization First 5 of Merced County. The goal of the program is to increase access to parks and playgrounds in the region by eliminating barriers to park access for children and their caretakers. There’s an estimated $700,000 to be spent on improvements.
Members of the Council on Monday voted unanimously to submit a proposal for $400,000 of the program funds toward the development of the Aletha June Playground as a start to the overall Vang Pao Park.
“There is a lot of appeal for getting this park started where there’s truly a lack of parks,” Mayor Matthew Serratto said.
The planned playground would be considered “all inclusive” and go beyond ADA requirements.
However, the Safe Play Initiative money is only a portion of what the city plans to spend on the playground. City staff has requested to use up to $805,000 of the city’s park reserve funds for the project.
Leaders also considered a playground at the planned Sports Complex, a.k.a. CP-42, in southeast Merced as a target for the Safe Play Initiative funding, but that site has the potential to attract multiple grant opportunities in the future due to its location and project scope. This time they gave priority to a growing north Merced neighborhood which lacks a community park site.
Building homes with volunteers
City officials say the local group associated with the Fuller Center For Housing has answered the city’s call for partners to increase affordable housing opportunities.
The international Fuller Center was created by Millard and Linda Fuller who previously founded Habitat for Humanity, but split with the group in 2005 over differences in operating philosophy. The Fuller Center’s motto includes: “extending a hand-up for families in need of simple, decent, and affordable places to live.”
Like Habitat, Fuller Center volunteers help build homes along with the sweat equity of the eventual home owners.
City leaders on Monday night unanimously approved an agreement with the Fuller Center to develop the following downtown vacant lots that the city had acquired through the past Redevelopment Agency: 1744 I Street, 26 W. 18th Street, 49 W. 18th Street and 150 W. 19th Street.
“We are going to build some good homes for deserving families in this community,” Lyle Allen of the local Fuller Center. “Our group has been doing this since 1994. We have built 16 homes in Merced County. We started as an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity.”
Allen said the group’s volunteer efforts are supported by Community Development Block Grants, and all the profits from their Reuse Store in Atwater.
“We are excited about this opportunity,” he said. “We have done this before, and we will do it again, the right way.”
The Wright Playground
The daughters of Kirk Wright, along with community advocate Walter Smith and many other local residents, asked the city to name the newly upgraded playground at McNamara Park as “The Kirk Wright Memorial Playground.”
And city leaders happily agreed.
Wright, who passed away in 2021, was a lifelong southside Merced resident, and a beloved McNamara Pool lifeguard. He was considered a mentor who tirelessly served his community for 45 years.
Wright was inspirational in establishing the first Black Student Union at Merced High School, and he also played in the MHS Band. He had a long career with the Ragu company, but he returned to college, earned a counseling degree, and began a second career as a drug and alcohol counselor in the Merced DUI Programs.
Wright helped in the effort to rename J Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Way. He also hosted Easter Egg Hunts and Juneteenth celebrations in town.
Public safety grants
The City Council approved the following state grants to the Merced Police Department: $25,000 from the Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) for the Child Passenger Safety Program; $40,000 from OTS for the Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Program, $100,000 from OTS for DUI Enforcement Programs; and $42,866 from the JAG Program to purchase an all-terrain vehicle and trailer for the Bomb Unit.
They also awarded a bid to Razzari Ford for the purchase of two new Police Responder pickups for a total cost of $103,269; and a bid to Merced Chevrolet for the purchase of three new Police sedans for a total cost of $73,106.82.
Absent from Monday night’s meeting was Councilmen Kevin Blake and Fernando Echevarria.