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September 13, 2013

Chipotle’s construction a sign of improvements in Merced

An empty ex-Blockbuster building in Merced is supposed to become three separate stores -- Chipotle, Panera Bread and another. Construction on Chipotle’s portion began this week..

Construction began this week on Chipotle Mexican Grill, one of three businesses to fill the former Blockbuster Video building near Merced Mall, near West Olive Avenue and R Street.

Workers began crafting the 2,000-square-foot northern end of the building to Chipotle’s specifications on Monday, according to Danielle Winslow, a spokeswoman for Chipotle. The building has been split into three spaces for separate businesses.

“We’re definitely excited to come to this location,” said Winslow.

Blockbuster closed earlier this year.

Winslow said construction is still in its early stages. Chipotle is expected to open by the end of this year.

Though fans of Chipotle include all ages, Winslow said, Chipotle typically does well in towns with a university, such as UC Merced. “College students are definitely a big demographic for us,” she said.

A “Bring Chipotle to Merced” Facebook page has been active since December. Maria Mendoza, a development associate with the city, said employees of Merced’s Office of Economic Development surveyed UC Merced students during certain events on campus to find out what businesses the undergrads would like to see in town. “Chipotle is one of the top answers that we get,” she said, adding that played a role in the eatery’s interest.

Students are looking for new stores and restaurants to patronize, and those businesses are looking for new students as customers. Mendoza said many developers have benchmarks in enrollment they want to see at the university before they will consider a new venture in town. UC Merced’s enrollment is near 6,000 and university officials are shooting for 10,000 by 2020. “The UC is a catalyst, because many of the questions that we are asked revolve around the UC,” she said.

The new eatery is an example of increased interest in Merced from business, Mendoza said. Her office takes many calls, she said, and is often giving tours to interested developers and investors. Members of the economic department have gotten some traction, in terms of getting attention for the city, at a yearly shopping center convention during the spring, Mendoza said.

The industrial sector is also showing interest. “Long story short is the steps that the city is taking to welcome business. It’s being recognized now,” she said. “We are getting a lot more traffic.”

The Merced City Council cut developer fees by more than half last year. Mendoza said she couldn’t reveal the names of the newest businesses interested in Merced but that residents should keep their eyes on Olive Avenue. The street will see more business-related activity in the coming months, she said.

Locals will see some of that activity two doors over from Chipotle.

Panera Bread has committed to the former Blockbuster building’s southernmost space, which is 4,200 square feet. The 800-square-foot retail space in the middle will remain empty for now, according to Kathy Andrade, the Merced Mall general manager.

Andrade said she expects Panera officials will begin their improvements in a week or so. The business will include a drive-through.

“There’s still quite a bit of work to do over there,” she said. “It could be January before Panera’s open.”

Panera and Chipotle will both have patio space, Andrade said.

Both eateries seem to be popular destinations, Andrade said, and she hopes they can benefit surrounding businesses and people.

“It increases foot traffic, we hope,” Andrade said. “And it creates jobs for the community.”

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