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Welcome signs finally becoming a reality for Merced

But it’s a Caltrans deal, and designs appear set

 

With little fanfare, and only a short discussion about locations, Merced City Council members unanimously approved a consent calendar item on May 6 regarding a construction contract for the “Gateway Monuments Project.”

The action, however, actually set forth what appears to be a final pathway toward a city goal that’s been punted back and forth for at least a decade: The straightforward idea of placing welcome signs at city entryways along Highway 99 and State Routes 59 and 140.

The meeting earlier this month also shed a light on just what these signs are going to look like, their size, wording, location, and other details. This is significant because local residents are going to be seeing these icons of hospitality, tourism and pride on a daily basis, not to mention the travelers on the roadways who will see them as that all-important first impression.

Surprisingly, the sign details were only highlighted because Councilman Fue Xiong pulled the consent item for discussion. Xiong was simply interested in moving one of the sign locations on Highway 59 farther north to Bellevue Road.

“It’s a pretty exciting project,” said Joe Cardoso, the city surveyor who presented the information upon request. “It will definitely bring a lot of attention to Merced. We drive up Highway 99, and we see these signs throughout the communities, and it seems like Merced is left out, but we’re going to catch up.”

The last time Merced had a monumental welcome sign at a city entrance — or anything similar — was the old “Merced: Gateway to Yosemite” arch, erected in 1927 and torn down to make way for the highway in 1940. Residents and leaders have been more vocal about welcome signs in recent years, pointing out that the city deserves some attention as one of only 10 communities in the entire state with a University of California campus.

In 2017, former Councilman Michael Belluomini led a subcommittee that solicited suggestions for sign designs from the public to be used in an effort to drum up community support to install a few. However, when the five finalist designs recommended by the subcommittee were presented, the council decided to hire a professional sign designer instead. In turn, the professionally designed sign was not recommended by the city Arts Commission because it seemed, as one member put it, like “clip” art.

The ideas quieted down for several years, and then the topic resurfaced in 2022 when the City Council approved acceptance of $850,000 in Caltrans grant funding to support the installation of gateway monuments on various state routes, along with $350,00 to support the installation of murals along underpasses below the highway through the city. It was all part of the Clean California State Beatification Program.

The city started work on the project last summer after finalizing the agreement with Caltrans. They hired a design consultant and got the design approved. The mural work was finished first, but the Gateway Monument Project is just getting started due to planning and environmental reviews that need to be completed, according to officials. Through an RFP bidding process, the city hired Square Signs, LLC from Burbank as the construction contractor.

The project includes two “monuments: signs for Highway 99, and as Cardoso relayed: “Don’t be surprised by the size cause they’re going to be massive.”

Each monument is going to be 20 feet high and 24.5 feet wide. One will be located between the 16th Street exit and Highway 99 for eastbound traffic, and one will be at Mission Avenue and Highway 99 for westbound traffic. They will have a base and a version of the city logo that has been in use on the city website and other signage, particularly around downtown Merced.

The sign will simply read: “Welcome To Merced” and the letters are expected to be at a height that’s level to the line of vision of nearby drivers.

Additionally, the project includes the installation of four 5 foot x 5 foot signs atop 13-foot posts at various locations: two on Highway 59 at Yosemite Avenue for north and southbound traffic, two on Highway 140 at Massasso Street for east and westbound traffic, and one on Campus Parkway for westbound traffic.

While the short discussion on welcome signs did not draw any public comment at the May 6 meeting, The Times did receive a letter to the editor about it.

Reader Jerry Perezchica wrote that the Caltrans grant was generous and should be thoughtfully implemented. Among other things, he advocated for many of the points brought up back in 2017, with more community input on the designs, landscaping and maintenance plans, and the inclusion of the words “Gateway To Yosemite.”

When asked about the city’s progress toward the installation of new welcome signs, Belluomini told the Times: “I am glad to see the city will finally have welcome signs at four key entrances to the city. … I believe in the public participation process which resulted [back in 2017] in some unique, memorable and attractive designs for the welcome signs. The currently proposed welcome sign seems to be the city stationary logo.”

There’s no word yet on when the signs will actually go up, though one city official said the Caltrans review process, which apparently is already in motion, takes about a year.

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