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Merced welcome center offers visitors outlook on California's past, present wonders

Close to 120,000 people from all over the world visit the California Welcome Center in Merced each year and are impressed with the varied attractions of the Central Valley, Karen Baker says.

Baker is a development associate with the City of Merced's visitor services office but considers herself a personal concierge. Many people are drawn to California but unfamiliar with what it has to offer when they get here.

The welcome center housed in Merced's Transpo Center is one of 18 in California but the only one in the San Joaquin Valley. It houses a wide variety of artifacts, information and area souvenirs.

"They don't realize how large and diverse California is," Baker says. "We pride ourselves on being personal concierges and finding out what people's interests are."

The 2,500-square-foot welcome center opened in 2000 in the brick-faced Transpo Center which resembles the old Southern Pacific Railroad depot. Baker says for the most part the visitors are friendly and relaxed, with at least one in their group familiar with English.

Baker and her associate, travel counselor Carol Gobler, say quite a few of the visitors come to visit Yosemite and plan to tour San Francisco. But they enjoy seeing all the agricultural bounty in Merced County and are attracted to the Castle Air Museum, Merced County Courthouse Museum, Hilmar Cheese Co., the Merced Fruit Barn and San Luis Reservoir.

Baker says quite a few Canadians are visiting Merced these days as well as residents of the South and East Coast. The visitor book from the last couple of months has signatures of tourists from England, Germany, Nepal, Italy, Israel, France, Bermuda, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland and Australia as well as Americans from throughout the country.

Gobler says language issues are fun to resolve and she sometimes reverts to pictures. Many visitors are lost when they first come in the Welcome Center and it's her role to help them accomplish their undefined travel goals. Visitors to the state want to see Yosemite, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hollywood sign.

"There is so much variety to see in California and they say they need to come back," Gobler says. "The most fun is the challenges in communication. You get accents and dialects, even from the U.S. A lot of the comments they make are about the largeness of this country. They are amazed at lots of open space and that it's beautiful. They come from all over the world and that's the real fun part."

Gobler says she has been told certain portions of Spain are similar to the San Joaquin Valley.

Baker points out visitors are fascinated with the oleander bushes seen along Highway 99 and other highways and can't figure out pistachio trees.

The major complaints Baker and Gobler hear is about the traffic in Los Angeles and California's winding roads. Visitors are amazed at the wide temperature difference between San Francisco and the Central Valley.

Baker says visitors think downtown Merced is beautiful and are captivated by its sprawling Applegate Park. Others enjoy seeing the UC Merced campus; many parents of UC students visit to see what there is to do in this community.

Baker says visitors customarily stay in the center for 45 minutes to an hour. The center has international guides, locally branded key chains, coffee mugs postcards, shoulder patches, T-shirts and sweatshirts, magnets, photographs, locally written books, snacks, beverages and ice cream.

Besides large murals on the walls, the welcome center also has permanent exhibits on Castle AFB, the Merced County Courthouse Museum, Greyhound, SP and Yosemite Valley Railroad transportation memorabilia along with case containing old cameras, roller skates and typewriters.

For more information on the Welcome Center at 710 W. 16th St., call (209) 724-8105 or 1-800-446-5353.

— Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.