Leaders laud 'big win' for local residents

By JONATHAN WHITAKER
August 10, 2017

In the fast-moving Trump news era, it’s safe to say it was a “good week” for the City of Merced.
Councilman Michael Belluomini summed it up this way in an email to the Times after Monday night’s meeting at City Hall.
“Last night's meeting was especially notable for four significant achievements: the approval of 50 units for the homeless including veterans at K and 13th St.; the purchase of the Sun-Star [property] for a new police station site; the hiring of a new interim Finance Director; and the approval of a 77-acre shopping center at Mission Ave and Highway 99. These are remarkable accomplishments that improve our city."
It’s all true, but the news may not be noticed in that particular order.
The big applause came after the council unanimously approved plans for the Merced Gateway Development which aims to bring a new regional shopping center including stores, restaurants, a hotel, a theater, and a public gathering space near the ever-growing Campus Parkway that extends from the Highway 99 corridor.
“This retail center is a big win for our residents,” said Mayor Mike Murphy, who noted new employment and shopping options.
The project is being developed on land that had been part of the Pluim family dairy from 1928 through 1986. The family joined with California Gold Development Corp., a Sonora-based firm to form the Merced Gateway Development.
“The development team estimates that the $150 million project will generate 800 construction jobs and 900 full-time jobs, and a $30-million payroll by full buildout,” said Economic Development Director Frank Quintero.
It’s estimated the center will generate $30 million a year in sales tax, the developers said.
Campus Parkway runs through the middle of the project, which is bounded by Cofffee Avenue on the west and Gerard Avenue on the north and Mission Avenue on the south.
The developers plan to built the center in eight phases over 5 years. Plans also include a city fire station. The owners said they plan to hire local workers and subcontractors to build the project.

City OKs purchase
of Sun-Star landmark
The change has been astonishing since the McClatchy Corporation rolled into town and purchased the Merced Sun-Star — the city’s oldest company — and five nearby non-dailies for a crisp $40.5 million in cash in 2004.
At the time, the Sun-Star was owned by Pacific-Sierra Publishing (it was previously owned by the Lesher family), and the other newspapers included the Los Banos Enterprise, the Chowchilla News, the Atwater Signal and the Livingston Chronicle.
“The Merced Sun-Star has a long and proud history of serving the city of Merced and Merced County, and we plan to continue and advance that heritage,” said McClatchy’s former CEO Gary Pruitt. (He now leads the Associated Press). “We will devote resources to continue to improve the journalistic quality of the newspaper for readers.”
Meanwhile in Modesto, then-executive editor of The Bee, Mark Vasche, was leading a round of applause in the newsroom, pointing out the acquisition was a game-changer for local news in the region.
Only seven years later, in 2011, the Sun-Star announced it was moving its printing operation to the Fresno Bee, eliminating 20 full and part-time press support positions in Merced. Eventually, editor and design team members were transferred to Modesto, standard reporting positions were not filled, and overall local content in the Merced print edition dropped.
The Atwater Signal, by the way, has all but vanished.
The Sun-Star’s online presence, however, has expanded, and that operation requires little office space. That’s probably why the Sun-Star staff currently only occupies a quarter of the room at 3033 G Street.
The landmark building (with the eagle out front) was state of the art when it was built in the early 1970s. It went up for sale a few years ago. And that’s when the City of Merced began to eye it as a potential location for its new Main Police Station / Headquarters.
On Monday night, city leaders unanimously OK’d the purchase of the entire 5.5-acre site for $1.62 million, and agreed to lease it back to McClatchy for $2,500 a month for at least a year. There was no discussion nor debate.
Now the city’s plan is to bulldoze the Sun-Star building, and create an all-new, state-of-the-art police station — for about $30 million.
The city, of course, doesn’t have that kind of money right now.
Leaders are looking into hiring a consultant to figure out if some kind of bond measure, or some half-percent sales tax increase, or some other type of taxpayer money can foot the bill.
There’s no easy answer, they say.

Affordable Housing
There was good news this week for the city’s HUD Annual Action Plan by way of a half a million dollars in unexpected revenue. The amended plan will help fund all the local nonprofits who requested public service funding from the plan’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program. The additional funding also gave a boost to the Home Investment Partnership Program.
Housing Program Supervisor Mark Hamilton said several sidewalk and street improvements will completed near Rivera School, John Muir School, and at the Gateway Terrace II project in south Merced. The latter project, Hamilton said, now is fully funded to support 50 units for homeless people, especially those who are military veterans.

Interim Finance Director
The city announced the hiring of an Interim Finance Director to fill the place of Brad Grant who retired in March. Her name is Venus Rodriguez, a longtime city employee and accountant.

Hookah Melee:
Cracks In Case?
Are you wondering if charges will be filed or dropped in the arrest of five men (all college students, including one from UC Merced) after a scuffle broke out involving 12 Merced police officers attempting to serve a search warrant during a July 9 party at the Chandelier’s Hookah Lounge on Main Street?
Police have said they met an aggressive crowd and one officer was punched in the face. Students say that an officer threw the first punch and the warrant effort caused fear and confusion. Some of the incident was captured on a cellphone video that was published and gone viral on the Internet. One scene shows an officer firing an anti-riot weapon to push back a student.
Here are three points to consider:
1. This week — a month after the incident — police have revealed the officer they say was assaulted lost his body camera during the melee. It was not recovered after a search.
2. On Monday night, in a rare move, an investigator with the District Attorney’s Office showed up at the Merced City Council meeting and spoke during the public comment period asking anyone with additional cellphone images of the event to please share it with investigators. He noted there were multiple cellphone cameras viewed filming during the incident.
3. The investigator was followed by the second line of student supporters — mostly female UC Merced students of color — in as many weeks to plead with city leaders to help drop the charges against the students. While decrying police brutality and racism against African Americans, the supporters have also listed positive qualities the arrested students have demonstrated over their academic lives.
(The Black Student Union at UC Merced plans a "Drop The Charges" press conference on Aug. 11, at 3:30 p.m., at the District Attorney’s office located at – 175 E 20th St, in downtown Merced.)


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