By Hannah Esqueda
Photo by Alyssa Castro
MERCED, Calif. — Despite high school students playing a significant role at the recent “State of the City” event, newly-elected Mayor Mike Murphy offered few details on the city’s plans to address youth funding.
Hundreds of local high school students filled the balcony section of the historic Merced Theater during the talk after being bussed in from several area schools, including Murphy’s alma mater of Golden Valley High School (GVHS).
The event also kicked off with a showcase of local youth talent, including performances by the GVHS jazz band and a dance number from Merced’s Young Leaders Performing Arts Company (YLPAC). The piece was choreographed to social activist Prince Ea’s piece “I am NOT black, you are NOT white.”
Murphy praised all the youth performers and said he chose to add YLPAC’s dance routine to his program after seeing the “powerful performance” a few days earlier.
“I was so impressed after seeing them perform that I took some mayoral initiative,” he said.
The selected spoken-word poem focuses on dismantling racial stereotypes in favor of celebrating diversity, a message that Murphy failed to expand on during his own comments about the state of Merced.
Rather than highlight the area’s rich cultural diversity during a section of his talk, which was titled, Who Are We?” Murphy spent several minutes describing the number of city-owned trees and 36 local parks.
From there the mayor’s attention turned to economic growth, as he detailed plans for an increased partnership between civic leaders and the University of California, Merced.
“Merced is a city on the rise,” he said. “I want us to be a leader for housing and education.”
He outlined a plan to grow the local housing market, which he said would be sustainable. Murphy called for 250 new homes to be built each year in Merced. This will help keep up with UC Merced’s plan to double in size by 2020. The expansion project will create an estimated 10,000 construction jobs and add more than a $1 billion to the local economy, Murphy said.
The city also expects to see big benefits from high-speed rail and will be the northernmost station once the first planned route is fully built, he said.
Murphy also highlighted several other local development projects, such as a plan to renovate the El Capitan Hotel in the downtown Merced area. Murphy praised the project developer’s vision of converting the building’s apartment layout into a boutique hotel and theater.
Once complete, the project will add a big-city feel to the area, “just like you’d see in San Francisco,” Murphy said.
The new mayor also touted the city’s decreased crime statistics, saying Merced had dropped from 15 homicides in 2014, to one in 2016.
“But while I think that figure is worth praising, even one homicide is too many,” he said.
To help crack-down even more, Murphy announced plans to add three to five new officers a year to the Merced Police Department. The department currently has 89 officers on the force and will continue to use predictive policing software, he said.
Murphy also detailed city plans to buy the Merced Sun-Star building along G Street and turn it into a new police headquarters. The facility is “at the heart of the city,” he emphasized, and would be a significant improvement to the department’s current space along 22nd Street.
At the talk, Murphy repeatedly described his vision of a bright future for Merced, but failed to share much detail on how the city planned to improve its record on youth investment. City leaders have previously been criticized for slashing youth-program funding, investing about $13,000 annually in youth programs in recent years.
Murphy said that the city recently added more resources to McNamara and Stephen Leonard Parks, enabling the city to serve thousands of families through academic and recreational resources.
However, many community advocates have noted that Stephen Leonard Park is now mainly reserved for use by a private soccer league, limiting its availability to the general public.
Outside of local parks, Murphy acknowledged a need for increased family-friendly entertainment and said several new businesses are expected to open to fill the local void.
The Mayor also touted the city’s recent decision to increase funding for the Boys & Girls Club, saying the center will now be open to the community on weekends. The increased hours are part of a pilot program and Murphy shared few details on the likelihood of funding similar such venues.
“There are other opportunities to partner with nonprofits on youth and other community groups that serve youth,” Murphy said.
No additional plans for youth-specific funding were shared during the talk, but Murphy did encourage the community to take a more hands-on approach to local change.
“How do you want to leave Merced for the next generation? I want to leave it a stronger, safer and more prosperous community,” Murphy said. “Be the change that you want to see around you.”