“Will people go back to the movies, or will they stay home and subscribe to the many new streaming services?”
That was the multimillion dollar question with local implications posed by Bill Kenney at the Merced City Council meeting on Monday night.
Kenney represents Codding Enterprises, which owns the Merced Mall, and he was at the meeting to give leaders an update on the mall’s long-awaited expansion that received Council approval back in March of 2019.
And he brought exciting news with him. Kenney said a lease has been executed with Cinemark Theatres for a new 56,000 square-foot theater at the Mall that’s expected to house 14 movie screens, about 1,377 seats, and state-of-the-art audio and video equipment.
The commitment with Cinemark, Kenny said, has become the catalyst for the redevelopment of the Merced Mall — something that was put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent retail closures.
As things return to normal and with expansion entitlements already in place, the Mall’s owners hope the Cinemark plan will pick up speed. If all goes well, they said construction could begin in another 18 months.
However, there are challenges that are beyond the control of the Mall and Cinemark.
Said Kenny: “One of the biggest hurdles is the fate of the theater exhibition industry. None of us could have anticipated in March of 2019 that we would face the tumultuous two years we have had to deal with. … If the general public doesn’t return to the theaters, not only will no new theaters get built, but most of the theaters, if not all, will close in the United States, and the theater operators will go bankrupt. …
“Obviously we don’t believe that will happen or we wouldn’t be investing the time, and more importantly, the capital necessary to move this project forward.”
The new theater space would be more than twice as large as the existing 22,000-square-foot Regal cinema that is expected to be removed and replaced with other retail options.
Meanwhile, on the Mall’s west side, new stores are being developed in the former Sears building which is privately owned. The stores are expected to complement the Mall’s overall renovation.
On another positive note, Kenney said the Merced Mall has been able to weather the pandemic and the financial crisis caused by government closures better than other similar retail malls across the nation.
Codding Enterprises is owned by the Codding family, he pointed out, not one of the major national mall chains that are listed on the stock exchange and answer to Wall Street executives who are only concerned with raw profit data.
City Attorney moving on
This week’s meeting was full of news and issues, including: the upcoming “redistricting process,” the final, approved 2021-22 budget, the ongoing debate over which airline is best suited to serve Merced, and a contested proposal to hand over total control of a pedestrian walkway that feeds into Main Street to a private owner who wants to set up cafe and bar activities and seal off the path at night.
City Attorney Phaedra Norton was there to witness it all, and even took the stand to comment on some of the legalities involved in some of the topics. She also gave a short lecture on the Brown Act to council members after they started to overly discuss an issue that wasn’t on the published agenda.
Interestingly, the next day, news broke that the City Council in Riverside approved Norton as their city’s new city attorney.
Norton, who has been serving Merced since October of 2018, will now be overseeing a staff of municipal attorneys who provide legal services to the 12th largest city in California.
She starts her new job on July 20.
Norton has more than two decades of experience in municipal law. In Riverside, she will oversee a staff of 39 people, including 18 attorneys, responsible for everything from routine legal matters to handling all litigation and working with outside legal counsel hired by the city.
“As a growing city with its own utility, Riverside is often confronted with extremely complex issues,” Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson said. “We need wise and experienced legal counsel to navigate these issues and I am confident Phaedra Norton is the right person to ensure that we do.”
Like Riverside, Merced operates under a charter, which serves as the guiding document for providing city services. Norton started her position in Merced in 2018 during the era of Mayor Mike Murphy after working about seven months as the Deputy City Attorney in Stockton. She had previously worked for a decade as the City Attorney in Turlock.
In Merced, Norton worked on homeless issues, including the Homeless Court program, and local ballot measures including: (2018) Measure Y — cannabis revenue; (2020) Measure K — 4-year mayoral term; (2020) Measure L — City Council stipend setting commission; (2020) Measure M — direct reporting from finance officer to City Council.
She also served during a tumultuous period that included the firing of City Manager Steve Carrigan, the local reaction to the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and the Black Lives Matter movement, the censorship of Councilman Fernando Echevarria, and of course, all the legal matters that the city faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and a declaration of a State of Emergency.
Her starting annual salary in Merced was $204,600. In Riverside, her salary will be $286,000.
“I am excited to join the City of Riverside team,” Norton said. “I look forward to bringing the knowledge and experience I developed in the San Joaquin Valley to Southern California and contributing to the Riverside community.”
The City Council has officially kicked off its redistricting process by approving a schedule to guide the effort, announcing the creation of an Advisory Committee, and an official redistricting webpage on the city’s website.
Every 10 years, public agencies must redistrict to determine how current boundaries of their voting districts might be redrawn based on recent Census data. The process will include substantial outreach to residents to ensure council districts meet strict requirements for population equality and voting rights protections, as well as respect for neighborhoods and geographical elements.
The council moved forward on the creation of a Redistricting Advisory Committee that will review the election districts, and advice leaders on proposed maps. The meeting dates for the committee will be scheduled soon. Meanwhile, those who are interested in serving on the panel can apply today by going online to: CityOfMerced.org. Go to the “Popular Links” link, and then “Apply For A Board.”
You can also email the City Clerk at: [email protected]
More to come on the latest news coming out of City Hall in upcoming editions of the County Times. Stay tuned!