Work begins on a downtown association in Merced

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comNovember 15, 2013 

— About a dozen downtown business owners have thrown their hats in the ring to be leaders of a proposed downtown business association in Merced, according to a business advocate.

John Cardenas, president of Merced County’s Multi-Cultural Chamber of Commerce, said they’re seeing increasing support from business owners who want more of a say in how the city spends money set aside for the entertainment district. They also want to create a bigger buzz on Main Street.

“We’re planning on getting more events to downtown,” Cardenas said, adding that the city needs to work to make itself a destination. “Why not host events?”

In an informal petition, Cardenas said he gathered about 140 signatures from business owners in the area who said they would support the downtown association. An association existed in Merced several years ago, but withered away.

Cardenas said his plan would include a “captain” for each block, and he’s identified a dozen willing owners so far. Cardenas said he’s also visited Clovis, Visalia, Stockton and Lodi to get ideas for Merced’s downtown.

Cardenas said he hopes the association can show enough backing that it could ask for say over the funds collected by the downtown double tax. The fund sits at about $119,000.

Merced’s downtown is the area encompassed within G and V streets, as well as the Union Pacific railroad tracks and the alley north of 19th Street. The 450 to 500 businesses in that area pay double taxes on their business licenses, and the money is pooled into a downtown fund.

How that money is spent is up to Merced City Council, but the main advisory board for the cash is the Downtown Steering Committee. The fund pays for portions of the Christmas parade, Cap and Town celebration, banners and advertising, among other things.

In the last few months, a survey commissioned by the economic development department asked downtown business owners if they stand behind the double tax.

Kevin Hammon, owner of Binary Systems Computer Repair on Main Street, said he stands behind the double tax, but said the steering committee needs to change. The city needs a more representative way of making decisions that involves more downtown business owners, he said.

None of the sitting members of the steering committee own a business in the designated area, although a few board members used to head businesses there and currently own buildings in the area.

“The way it’s (done) right now, you basically have taxation without representation,” he said.

Frank Quintero, director of economic development for the city, said changes are likely coming to the steering committee, but the process will take some time.

He said he expects to be able to report the findings of the surveys in December. One recommendation would require a majority of the steering committee to be downtown business owners.

“Ultimately, the decision is up to City Council,” he said.

Since Gov. Jerry Brown effectively killed the city’s redevelopment agency, along with 400 eliminated across the state, the downtown fund is the sole source of funding for the area, Quintero said.

The successes on Main Street, including both of Merced’s theaters, were thanks to redevelopment. “This will be really the first year where we don’t have redevelopment support,” he said.

Mayor Stan Thurston said a downtown business association would likely be a good idea. The group could serve as an organizing committee and an advisory committee for City Council.

“I think we need a stronger organization that’s interested in doing activities downtown,” he said. “The people that are most interested in doing that are the people that own businesses there.”

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@ mercedsunstar.com.

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