Merced has long been known as the “gateway to Yosemite” but now, a new momentum is building in the city’s downtown region to take Merced from gateway to destination.
The last several years has seen new shops, restaurants, residential apartments, entertainment venues, and a new boutique hotel opening in downtown. These new entities are mixing in with a vibrant art community, the UC Merced Downtown Campus Center, government and business leaders for a downtown resurgence.
“I strongly feel that in the next two years people will see a significant change in downtown Merced,” said Merced Mayor Matthew Serratto.
The resurgence is being spurred by four key components: private investments, public resources and support, a lively art community, and the return of events.
“From a city perspective we have to stimulate the investment from the private side, make the investment on our end and then we have to do our best to put the right structures in place,” Serratto said.
The private investment has been led by revitalization projects of The Tioga, The Mainzer and the El Capitan Hotel.
The Tioga has been transformed into chic downtown residential apartments that quickly filled up when it opened last year. The amenities include a large mezzanine and community space with pool tables, a kitchen prep station, dining tables, lounge areas, a viewing room, games and art from local artists.
Perhaps one of the more enticing details is the entry into The Tioga that replicates the grandeur of what it once was.
“We painstakingly and lovingly brought it back to its original glory,” said Robin Donovan, the managing director of all three properties. “The Tioga was originally a hotel visited by stars and presidents alike.”
The arrival of the sign marking the return of The Tioga proved to be a memorable moment in downtown Merced’s transition.
“My phone was blowing up,” Donovan laughingly recalled. “Everyone was texting me and sending pictures. It felt like it was the catalyst - the beginning of the change.”
Across the street from The Tioga is the Mainzer, an Art Deco theater transformed into a restaurant and entertainment venue. For those who enjoy games, the Mainzer offers a wide variety of options. There’s Skee-Ball, Ping-Pong, Foosball, and special tables with tops ready for games of chess, checkers, Trivial Pursuit and Scrabble.
The Mainzer retained the history and design of the theater. There are two screening areas. The larger space is furnished with tables and chairs and has a stage for live performances and a large screen that will be used for sporting events and other special screenings.
“We’re looking forward to having comedy shows and concerts,” Donovan said.
The second area is in the mezzanine and is furnished with plush couches and chairs for viewing comfort.
“I see this space used for TED talks, documentary screenings and private events,” Donovan said.
The restaurant features an upscale menu at affordable price points and sources all food locally. There’s a full bar and a unique beer wall that allows guests to try out some new brews.
“The Mainzer attracts all ages,” Donovan said. “The whole idea is to come hang out and enjoy yourself.”
Just down the street the El Capitan has opened. The Joie de Vivre by Hyatt boutique hotel offers a staggering number of amenities for guests staying in one of the 114 rooms. The rooms are spread out between the refurbished Arbor Lane Wing and newly constructed Main Street Wing. The room designs and the hotel draws upon the beauty of the Central Valley and Yosemite with lots of natural, hand-crafted materials and textures.
“We are thrilled to welcome guests to experience the JdV by Hyatt brand’s inclusive spirit and joy-driven service through this new chapter in the hotel’s history,” Donovan said. “There is so much to discover in Merced from the charm of the town’s classic American Main Street to the surrounding farms and vineyards. We’re opening during a unique time, but El Capitan has been a beacon in this community offering access to comfort and adventure for more than 100 years and that is a tradition we’re excited to expand upon.”
The emergence of new businesses doesn’t stop with these three projects. Bitwise Industries and Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Company both announced plans to set up shop in downtown Merced. There’s also new restaurants and a wine bar coming in the future.
“It’s so beautiful down here and there’s more coming,” said Merced City Councilmember Bertha Perez, whose district includes downtown Merced. “I live four blocks away and I love that I can walk to all these places that I used to have to drive to. You can come down here and get a coffee, see a show, check out some art and have dinner.”
The City of Merced is doing its part to shape the future of downtown Merced. Plans include turning Main Street into a one-way between Martin Luther King Jr. Way and N Street.
“Changing it to a one-way accomplishes three purposes,” Serratto said. “It slows down traffic and makes it more pedestrian friendly; it adds for a much more creative use of road spaces like parklets and bulb-outs and it adds more parking.”
Additionally, the city will be converting parking spots into diagonal parking spaces, add new landscaping, and is planning an expansion of Bob Hope Square that would include a stage, a welcoming arch and space for events.
“We recognize that things are going to change, but it’s really an opportunity for our city - more jobs, more vibrancy, more things to do,” Serratto said.
The downtown Merced art scene is ready to help spur the resurgence of the district.
“I think we are about to see a creative renaissance happen, especially here in downtown Merced,” said Colton Dennis, the director of the Merced Multicultural Arts Center. “There’s a real desire in the community to have that connection between artist and audience back again.”
The area is already home to venues for visual and performing arts like Playhouse Merced, the Merced Theatre, and the Merced Multicultural Arts Center. Soon the MAC and the city will begin a project that will see about 30 utility boxes transformed into unique art pieces by local artists.
“These artists are going to inspire the next phase of Merced’s future,” Dennis said.
The final component of downtown Merced’s resurgence is the return of events. It was kicked off by the Merced County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Mercado on Cinco de Mayo. The outdoor event in Bob Hope Square featured vendors, music, live performances, an open-air art gallery, a classic car show, and lots of food and drink options. The Mercado will be returning on June 3, July 1, Aug. 5, Sept. 2, and Oct. 7.
“Downtown has to be an experience and it has to be a central gathering point for the whole community and there’s got to be things for everybody,” Serratto said. “Merced is in that sweet spot and to me the best kind of city. There’s enough going on, but small enough where you still know each other.”