Knee-deep in priority projects,
Merced city manager remains upbeat

By JONATHAN WHITAKER
October 12, 2017

It’s coming up on two years since Steve Carrigan came to town and was cast in the role of an energetic, optimistic, and charismatic new city manager ready to usher in a new era of growth.
The 50-something administrator hit the ground running, never looked back, and so far, he hasn’t stopped being … well … Steve Carrigan.
“My expectations were pretty high for Merced, and it has exceeded all my expectations,” he says with a big smile. “I love my team at City Hall. The council has been great to work with — if fact — I consider them friends. The private sector has been great … The development community, the chamber, the Boosters. … Everybody wants a better Merced.”
Don’t doubt what Carrigan says because he’ll look you straight in the eye and make you believe.
“I mean that,” he continues. “I really like what’s going on here in Merced … It’s something special. … We may not agree all the time on how to get where we want to be, but this is something I want to be a part of for the next four or five years. It’s going to be very interesting to see the changes around here, and it will be very interesting to see how Merced embraces these changes.”
Concerning the most prestigious leader in city government — Mayor Mike Murphy — Carrigan says it’s been a pleasure.
“I talk to the mayor every day about making Merced a better place — every single day,” he says. “I enjoy working with him. We agree on 92 percent of everything.”
The conversation falls quiet for a moment, and then Carrigan picks up again: “Everyone knows the recession hit Merced very hard. It was like everything stopped for four to six years. When you lose all momentum, and go to 0 mph, it takes a while to get going again. But I have to tell you, we are very lucky to have High Speed Rail, the Altamont Commuter Express [ACE train], the Campus Parkway project, and UC Merced investing $1.2 billion in the community as the campus and student population grow.”
But those things are still yet to come, right?
Carrigan explains: “We are still at the beginning of this wave of economic growth. I think in two to three years, we will really feel it strong, but right now, I can tell you our revenue figures are up. We are in really good shape.”
Nevertheless, there’s no denying that many experts have been predicting another recession could hit in 2019 or 2020.
What does that mean for Merced?
Carrigan says he’s not worried too much.
“I don’t think we will catch pneumonia this time. I think it will be more like a head cold. I’m hoping we can build our way through it. I believe over the next three years, we will build, on average, 350 apartments. It’s not all going to happen in the first year. In terms of housing, I think it will be 250 homes per year for the next three years. All this plus what UC Merced is doing with their 2020 Project. They have 400 construction workers out there today, and that’s going to grow to 1,000. These are workers living in our community, and buying products in our community.”
Carrigan says he’s often asked about jobs, and attracting at least some UC Merced graduates to stay in the community and help it grow.
“We have identified 1,200 acres at the end of Mission Avenue for the expansion of our industrial park space,” he says. “The problem is that it’s about a five-year project. We won’t see shovels in the ground just yet. You have environmental hurdles to clear, and about two dozen property owners have to sign on.”
One industry that might make a more immediate jolt to the local economy is the surging new cannabis industry. Merced is currently hashing out groundbreaking regulations before the state gives the green light.
A majority of City Council members have already opened the door to potential cultivation and production warehouses, manufacturing and testing.
“We are taking this seriously, and talking to a lot of people,” Carrigan says. “If I had to predict the future, two years from now, other cities in the valley are going to follow our lead. … We are doing a lot of the trailblazing. But we also are giving ourselves a head start. We can potentially brand ourselves in a positive way. There is only so much cultivation, manufacturing and testing you can do. So because we are taking the risk, I want Merced to get the reward. … Retail shops, like pharmacies, are eventually going to be in many different locations around the valley. The trick is who gets the warehouses, the manufacturing, and the distribution centers.”
Carrigan adds that Merced has a place to house these new investors.
There are 66 acres of city-owned land near the airport “that are prime for this type of work. … We’re talking warehouses locked up like Fort Knox, with guards, security cameras, and no smell. … You will drive by, and not even know what it is.”
Meanwhile, on the downtown Merced scene, Carrigan says the developer of the new El Capitan Hotel renovation project has pulled a demolition permit. He says residents might see some action as soon as November when some of the building is expected to come down to make way for the improvements. The new chic hotel will feature a restaurant with bar service.
Just a block away, the new UC Downtown Campus administration building is set top open in January.
“UC Merced is not messing around,” Carrigan says. “We’re talking 280 to 300 employees that will be on the street in downtown, eating at restaurants and shopping at stores. There will be more faculty, staff and students on Main Street. This time next year, downtown is going to have a different look.”
On a more somber note, Carrigan does respond to the ongoing issue of homelessness in the community, and he doesn’t mince words.
“It’s bad,” he says, “but it’s everywhere in the county and this valley. … What we are seeing are the effects of Prop. 47, Prop. 57 and AB109 — basically when the voters of California allowed low-level prisoners out of jail. Now they are on the street, and we are seeing more and more of them. For some, supportive housing is a solution, but it takes time to build. Every community is behind, and there’s no one more frustrated than me.”
Carrigan says with the exception of code enforcement, the issue of homelessness is the thing he hears about most from residents and business owners.
“Homeless people are coming to our city faster than we can get them off the street, and a lot of these people don’t want help, or they are not ready for help.
The city manager also serves as the director of the County Continuum of Care board that works to find solutions to homelessness.
One newly funded program has put four workers on the streets every day in an effort to engage homeless people and get them on the right track. Two of these workers take care of service outreach, and the other two help with logistics.
“It’s frustrating because one person living on the street will decide to get help, and then two more show up,” Carrigan says. “It hurts, and it’s a problem that’s in every community throughout the county.”
He says leaders and city staff members are also brainstorming ideas at City Hall. One idea involves providing storage lockers to transients.
“There are two things some homeless people don’t want to give up,” Carrigan says. “Their stuff, and their pets. … If we can help them store their things and not park them out in public view, and get them mobile, it might be something to consider. … We also kicked around the idea of a portable shower system, and then monitor it.”
At the end of the day, Carrigan says, it’s always been a difficult effort, but the community must keep up the fight.
“I don’t think any of these ideas are going to be popular with the community, but we are losing the battle. … We may have to try some ideas that are a little out of the box. It might make people uncomfortable, but if it doesn’t work, we can take it away, and then try something else. … Anything, really, that might help. ”


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