You could say Mayor Mike Murphy set the tone for Merced in 2019 during his State of the City speech at the start of the year.
Murphy called for a renewed, priority focus on homelessness, and he announced the long-awaited transformation of the city’s downtown would come into view.
And you could say the city witnessed results on both fronts.
This year, the city and the county initiated an unprecedented partnership to tackle the region’s homeless problems. They rolled out plans for a new “navigation center” near the mental health facility in south Merced, and other smaller facilities across the county. The Merced location would also include a 24/7 shelter with the capacity of nearly 200 beds. They said local and state funds were available to build out the complex.
A smaller version of the navigation center is up and running; however, the regional effort is still in its planning stages. The operational budget plan is still under consideration.
That said, the planning and conversation on local homelessness is remarkable, and marks the most significant focus yet by local leaders to solve what residents consider the No.1 concern in the area.
The city also received $14 million from the state that’s going to help build a housing project at Childs and B streets. The project will hold 119 units, 30 of those will be permanent support care for folks experiencing homelessness, and the rest will be for those that meet 60 percent of the average median income.
The city attorney, local judges and others are said to be working on a “mobile” Homeless Court to deal with the legal issues of individuals on the street — in a way that protects the citizenry and also helps struggling residents get back on their feet and into a pathway to productivity and/or healing.
Not to be outdone, the Merced County Rescue Mission announced this year that they purchased land south of the fairgrounds for a new campus that would work with the city and the county on homeless issues. The Mission has also secured major funding for a respite center on the campus to house and nurture recently released patients from the local hospital.
Nevertheless, negative aspects of the city’s homeless issues were ever present during 2019. New camps sprung up across the city, and law enforcement continued to deal with homeless issues non-stop.
The old camp along the Santa Fe tracks is back, though much smaller than in previous years; as well as the “condos” underneath the Childs Overpass in southeast Merced.
According to a homeless count survey — a one-day spot count — homelessness across the county grew in 2019 with an 18 percent increase with 607 compared to the 2018 survey of 514. There was also a 35 percent increase listed in Merced, up to 419 people from the 310 counted in 2018.
Neighbors near city parks — especially around Applegate Park and Stephen Leonard Park — brought complaints — and even photos and video evidence — to the City Council throughout the year. They called for leaders to help Merced residents “take back” public parks from all-day campers, and those who are doing illegal things especially at night.
The pressure led to a split City Council that approved curbing nighttime park hours across the city.
Much of downtown core along Main Street — between M and N streets — was a construction zone in 2019.
Three historic venues — the Hotel Tioga, the El Capitan Hotel and the Mainzer Theater — were all under renovation and construction, and are due to open in 2020.
“The Tioga” — its new name — is becoming a 70-unit luxury apartment complex that will soon start taking in tenants. The giant sign (slightly modified) is back atop the massive structure, and you can see it lit up at night from Highway 99.
The Mainzer is being transformed into a modern, 196-seat entertainment center, with a restaurant and bar, set to open by the end of February.
And the El Capitan Hotel is being restored and expanded into a 114-room hotel that is expected to open soon as well.
Down the street, the Merced County Office of Education is moving staff and creating conference space inside the Mondo Building (the old Bank of Italy) across from Bob Hart Square, and the valley-wide Bitwise group just announced a new tech training center to be created on Main Street across from the El Capitan Hotel.
There’s still boarded up store fronts and vacant buildings on Main Street, but there’s excitement in the air as residents see the first significant growth spurt downtown since the crushing economic blow of the Great Recession.
Speaking of building, last month the city surpassed 4,000 building permit applications, exceeding the previous record of 3,663 for the entire year of 2005. Final numbers for the year were expected to be a lot higher.
The former Sears Center and Orchard Supply have been undergoing renovations, while five companies are currently adding more than 120,000 square-feet of industrial and commercial space to the city.
This is just a small snapshot of growth and progress that happened in the city in 2019.
On Friday, Feb. 7, Mayor Murphy will give his final State of the City speech at the Merced Theatre.
His term ends soon after the big November General Election of 2020.
It will be interesting to hear about what Murphy sees in store for all of us in the months ahead.
More about the New Year in the next edition of the Merced County Times!