Merced County Times Newspaper
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Downtown Merced on verge of major transformation

A rendering of the El Capitan Hotel in Downtown Merced
A rendering of the El Capitan Hotel in Downtown Merced

By early next year, things will be dramatically different in a core block of downtown Merced that’s undergoing some major renovation now.

A representative for the company orchestrating new uses for the Hotel Tioga at Main and N streets, a completely repurposed Mainzer Theater just across the street and the transformed El Capitan Hotel at Main and M streets is bullish about Merced’s future.

Robin Donovan is the managing director of the Tioga, Mainzer and El Capitan projects under the wing of the hotel-restaurant corporation. She will stay here to oversee their operation when they are up and running within a few months. She moved here recently and is planning to put down roots in Merced.

Donovan and Frank Quintero, director of economic development for the city of Merced, are confident these new ventures are part of the marked transformation under way for a core block of downtown.

And they believe within five years these venues will help make downtown Merced a destination in itself — a go-to location and not just a stop on the way to somewhere else.

Donovan said the goal is to open up the Mainzer entertainment complex by the end of February, 2020; the 70-unit Tioga luxury apartment complex will start taking tenants by the end of December. And the 114-room El Capitan Hotel should be welcoming guests at the end of December or early January.

The Mainzer will have a brand-new full-service bar and restaurant. Its designers want to maintain its historical elements that date back to the 1937-vintage Strand Theater.

At the Mainzer, a 196-seat amphitheater is planned along with an area reserved for mechanical-analog games like ping pong, foosball, and skee ball which were typically found in yesteryear’s arcades or amusement parks.

The amphitheater will host open mic nights and attract local professional musicians, live bands and comedians, perhaps recording groups from the past.

“We are trying to maintain the historical elements. The marquee is staying. We’re keeping the live stage. We are not stuck to one thing,” Donovan says.

Upstairs at the Mainzer, the cinema plans to show art films, documentaries and movies not thought to be first-run but popular with movie buffs craving historical subjects. This locale also can host company meetings and presentations in a lecture hall setting.

“We are working with UC Merced and they’re very happy we’re coming to town. All space can be used for events such as weddings, reunions, quinceaneras and birthday parties,” Donovan says.

The saws may still be whistling and whirring and the hammers keep tapping but they are already getting inquiries about booking the Mainzer, Donovan says.

“With the Mainzer, it’s something for everybody. We will have a self-serve craft beer system. For college students, it will be a great place to hang out. We can always see business folks relaxing and enjoying a beverage,” Donovan says,

She stresses they want to make this a magnet for people from the South Bay Area and other San Joaquin Valley cities.

“We want to make this a destination spot. We get to be unique and different. Our goal is to revitalize downtown, especially this section. We want our own people in Merced to have a cool place to hang out and be proud of,” Donovan says.

The El Capitan Hotel will have two restaurants, one a full-service one and the other a coffee-bar setting. An open courtyard facing M Street also is part of the hotel’s plans. Retail space will be available on the bottom floor of the El Capitan Hotel.

“Merced has a huge amount of potential and we believe in it. That’s why we are here. We don’t want empty storefronts. If we start doing things, maybe others will, too. Both myself and Barbara (Barbara Piagiri, director of sales and marketing) are building and buying houses. We plan to live here,” Donovan says.

Donovan stressed they hope to see a thriving downtown in three years. She believes it can be done.

Her company will be hiring about 120 people for its three projects, from managerial to hourly and housekeeping employees.

Swinerton Builders is the contractor for the Mainzer and Tioga projects and S.C. Anderson is building the El Capitan Hotel. A new hotel wing is being erected and an existing wing completely refurbished.

Donovan points out the Mainzer should be a great partner with the Merced Theater Foundation and they aren’t here to compete with each other. She has been asked to be a member of the theater foundation board.

“In general, I think there are a lot of people in Merced who want the downtown to succeed. All we’re trying to do is make downtown better,” Donovan says.

Quintero, the city’s chief economic development official, said efforts are being made to boost Merced’s night life for the 21 and over crowd through new entertainment venues. He has worked for the city for 29 years.

“There’s a lot going on in downtown solidifying it as Merced’s arts and cultural district. We see Merced’s night life changing in five years. We will see more activities and it will be more of a draw, a destination, rather than a place to go through,” Quintero says.

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