Downtown Merced is ready for its close-up

  • by Ed Walsh, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
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Kim Garner, left, joined Eric Olson-Diehl, Jennifer McQueen, and MAC Executive Director Colton Dennis at the Merced Pride Center. Photo: Ed Walsh
Kim Garner, left, joined Eric Olson-Diehl, Jennifer McQueen, and MAC Executive Director Colton Dennis at the Merced Pride Center. Photo: Ed Walsh

Downtown Merced is making a dramatic comeback and LGBTQs are helping to lead the way. With a population of nearly 90,000, the Central California city's downtown was once its crown jewel. Now it appears to be on a roll to reclaim some of its past glory.

Earlier this month, I made the trip to Merced on Amtrak from San Francisco. The fare was just $31 round trip, including the Amtrak bus shuttle from 555 Mission Street, which connects with the train at the Emeryville station. It would take a little over two hours to drive in good traffic. My trip took just 3.5 hours, including the bus ride. Merced has the closest Amtrak train station to Yosemite National Park and the YARTS bus (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) runs regularly from downtown Merced to Yosemite for $22 round trip. The trip takes about 2.5 hours. It's about 1.5 hours to drive.

Beyond being a gateway to Yosemite, Merced is a destination itself. The Hyatt boutique brand JdV took over the historic downtown El Capitan Hotel and, after three years of renovation and construction, it finally opened last year. On the same block, the corporation also bought and renovated the Mainzer Theater and the nearby Tioga Hotel, which is now an upscale apartment building.

The El Capitan's grand reopening on March 31, 2021 set the stage for downtown Merced's renaissance. With 114 rooms, the El Capitan is Merced's largest and most upscale hotel. With rates starting as low as $139, the hotel offers luxury for the price of a budget hotel in the Bay Area. El Capitan does not charge any resort fees, has free Wi-Fi, and even free valet parking.

The guiding and driving force behind the project is Robin Donovan, who moved from the Bay Area to Merced with her wife in January 2019 to help oversee the project, hiring 140 employees. She had previously managed JdV hotels in the Bay Area. In a testament to her managing skills, some of the employees followed her from the Bay Area.

Hyatt also hired away Kim Garner, a straight ally, from UC Merced, where she worked in the chancellor's office, to oversee its community outreach and, through her work, the company is strongly supporting the city's LGBTQ community. The Merced Pride Center operates in a room in the city's arts center just steps from the hotel.

The Mainzer Theater includes a monthly drag show that draws a big LGBTQ audience on the second Thursday of the month. The not-to-be-missed show is emceed by Kat Zambrano, a transgender woman who is an advocacy director for the Modesto-based Central California LGBTQIA+/2S Collaborative.

Merced's Pride Center opened just six months ago in January. The center is a room at Merced's Multicultural Arts Center but what it lacks in space it more than makes up for in spirit. The center hosts a number of support groups both in-person and on Zoom, providing a lifeline to those who feel isolated.

"We have a lot of youth that come to us that log on to our support groups online, and they have cameras off, they usually stay muted during the chat because they don't want the people in their household to know that they need this kind of support," Jennifer McQueen, the center's executive director, told the Bay Area Reporter.

Big differences

McQueen moved to Merced with her wife and three children from Southern California in 2018 and quickly noticed a cultural difference in the central part of the state.

"It honestly slammed me in the face, the differences, the cultural differences," McQueen said. "You really forget there's this huge chunk of rural Central California that is not San Francisco and it is not LA. You might as well pull it out and stick it in the Midwest."

McQueen and Garner fought back tears as McQueen talked about her appreciation of Garner and the corporate support in helping to rally support from other businesses.

"And Kim [Garner], honest to God, was the very first community member who stepped forward and very unapologetically said 'yes, we will support you, we will be here for you. We are on board. No questions asked,'" McQueen said.

Center volunteer and U.S. Marines veteran Eric Olson-Diehl told the B.A.R. that he had moved to Merced with his husband and two children and decided to get involved with the center to help support his gay son who is now 19 and in the Army, as well as others in the LGBTQ community. But he said that one of the most popular get-togethers is the 40+ coffee group.

"We have a core group of at least 10 people who meet every two weeks for coffee," Olson-Diehl said.

Merced's Multicultural Arts Center, also known as The MAC, is celebrating Pride June 15-July 24 with an exhibition entitled "Out Loud: Celebrating the Colors of the LGBTQI+ Arts Showcase," highlighting the works of LGBTQ artists and LGBTQ images.

Merced doesn't have a Pride parade but it does have a Pride festival, held this year on Saturday, September 17. The festival will take place in the heart of downtown in Bob Hart Square. This year, the Merced City Council approved flying the Pride flag for the month of June and agreed to put it permanently in the schedule to be flown every June for Pride Month.

Pride got a jump-start last month with the International Merced Queer Film Festival that had screenings of 135 films over seven venues for four days, McQueen said. It was the first year of the festival but organizers say it will be a yearly event.

The Courthouse Museum in downtown Merced is a city landmark. Photo: Ed Walsh  

The landmark Merced Theater's tower can be seen from nearby Highway 99 and is one of the city's most iconic buildings. After a number of renovations and remakes, it now hosts live performances and second-run and classic movies. The theater's interior wall facade is designed to look like a Spanish village. A projector lights up the ceiling with simulated moving clouds, giving a feeling of being in an amphitheater.

The Merced Courthouse Museum is another of the city's landmarks. The building dates back to 1875 and operated as a courthouse for 100 years. It's now a treasured museum with artifacts from the city's early days when it was first put on the map by the railroad. The iconic cupula is closed to the public but be sure to take note of the three statues at the top of the building of the Roman goddess Justitia. Prolific San Francisco-based architect A.A. Bennett designed the building but didn't put the traditional blindfold on the goddess because he didn't believe justice was blind.

The Tioga is a newly renovated apartment building in Merced. Photo: Ed Walsh  

The Tioga Hotel reopened two years ago in the heart of downtown as a luxury apartment building. The iconic name and sign was restored, taking the building back to its heyday when it first opened in 1928, just a year before the Great Depression began.

The Mainzer Theater is a cafe and theater where you can enjoy a live dinner show or just grab a casual bite anytime.

Lake Yosemite is about seven miles from downtown. The picturesque reservoir is open for picnics and fishing and includes a swimming beach. Admission is $6 per car.

Lake Yosemite is next to UC Merced, the newest campus in the UC system. It opened in 2005 with fewer than 1,000 students and currently has almost 10,000 enrollees. Expansion plans project that the university will eventually accommodate 25,000 students.

Applegate Park and Zoo is about a mile from downtown and includes a teal field hockey court sponsored by the San Jose Sharks. You will notice a statue of a teenage boy holding the hand of a small boy in the park. Sadly, the plaque explaining the statue was stolen in April but the boys are Steven Stayner and Timmy White. Stayner was kidnapped by Kenneth Parnell in 1972 when he was 7 years old, but when Parnell kidnapped little Timmy White, this time using a teenager as an accomplice, Stayner rescued the boy and himself. Stayner was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was just 24 in 1989. His brother, Cary Stayner, was convicted in 2002 of murdering four people at Yosemite Park in 1999.

Good eats
Central California has a reputation for being a fast-food haven but there are many moderate and high-end eating options, plus a burgeoning wine industry.

The Rainbird Restaurant, which is part of El Capitan, is famous for its five-course $85 tasting menu and is the fine-dining option in Merced. Native Son is a casual dining light-bites coffee shop with indoor and outdoor dining. The restaurant's rainbow Pride cookies are prominently displayed next to the cash register. When it is not in the middle of a show, the Mainzer serves up unapologetic comfort food and has a loyal following for its Saturday and Sunday brunch.

Bella Luna is another longtime Merced favorite eatery. Giancaro DiTullio and his wife, Anaid Martinez-DiTullio, bought the restaurant last year and remodeled the space without changing the character of the restaurant, which holds memories for generations of residents. DiTullio told the B.A.R. that he and his wife decided to buy the restaurant after seeing the Hyatt's investment downtown.

Vista Ranch, on the outskirts of Merced, is a popular stop for visitors on their way to or from Yosemite. The tasting room is part of a bucolic farm where you can get back to nature while enjoying a great Central California wine.

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