Rebuilding Downtown Merced, California: A Q&A With Robin Donovan & Sara Cribari Hill
The Great Recession devastated Merced, California, a city located in the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of the state’s farm belt. By 2012, four years into the economic downturn, Merced County had one of the country’s highest rates of home foreclosures as the unemployment rate soared to 14.5 percent and housing prices plummeted from $180 per square foot to $73 per square.
Shortly thereafter, a developer with roots in Merced began to buy abandoned or underutilized Main Street buildings in hopes of sparking a renewal in the city’s fortunes. In 2020, two of the developer’s three major projects—The Tioga, a residential renovation of a luxury hotel built in 1928, and the Mainzer, a restaurant- and entertainment-driven revival of a historic Art Deco theater—opened. The El Capitan Hotel, a 114-room upscale boutique hotel—the original of which opened at the start of the last century to serve train passengers and guests on their way to Yosemite—will open its doors later this spring.
I worked on the master plan for this downtown effort over six years ago, and it was truly satisfying to circle back to see how far it has come and speak with the two women who are responsible for ensuring the project’s continued success: Robin Donovan, managing director, and Sara Cribari Hill, director of people and community impact, for Hyatt Lifestyle Hotels.
Q: What is the overall vision and how does each project fit into that vision?
Robin: The vision is and has been to bring projects to Merced that (1) are needed by the community and (2) are currently unfulfilled. Downtown has been in rough shape for years as businesses shuttered and people stopped frequenting Main Street. But already in a few short months, The Tioga and the Mainzer have changed that reality and perception by making Main Street and the neighborhood much more vibrant.
Sara: I live downtown and it’s been great to see so much activity out on the streets. I’ve had people come up to me who haven’t been downtown for years, who thank me and tell me what a treat it was to go to the Mainzer—to have a reason to come back downtown again. And there is already a trend of greater demand for living downtown as house prices in my neighborhood have begun to rise.
Robin: The Tioga fills the need for a fun, experiential residential product for downtown. During a pandemic, we were able to quickly lease 95 percent of the units and that clearly proved the need. We are now working on leasing out the ground-floor retail units. The Mainzer provides a new dining and entertainment venue that gives residents a reason to stay or come to Main Street and make a night out of it. The El Capitan Hotel, which will be a Joie de Vivre hotel when it opens in a few months, will add a much needed lifestyle hotel product as well as bring important cultural programming and additional dining options to downtown.
Q: What has the collaboration been like with the city and other important stakeholders?
Sara: It’s been amazing. The city has been so supportive as have the Merced Main Street Association, the Downtown Neighborhood Association, Merced College, and UC Merced. Everyone is excited about the positive change that our projects represent and want to be involved in ways that make sense for the continued good of the city and its residents.
Q: What have been your most satisfying experiences so far?
Robin: For me, it was definitely how Dignity Health’s Mercy Medical Center immediately incorporated our projects into their recruiting pitch to help attract the best medical talent to Merced.
UC Merced has done the same thing, leveraging our projects to position Merced as a more attractive destination for professors, as well as for prospective students and their parents. That tells me that we’ve done something right, that there’s a bigger picture ROI, a bigger vision than just buildings that house a hotel, a restaurant and theater, and apartments at work here. That is immensely satisfying.
Sara: It’s how we are beginning to help the city with economic development in regard to new investment in retail and people. It wasn’t too long ago that you actually had to leave the county to shop. While we don’t have everything yet, it’s getting better as our projects give people and companies confidence to open different types of retail businesses downtown, which improves walkability and builds a stronger a sense of community.
The second piece, and the most important, is people and the training programs that we are creating or partnering with that result in real jobs.
Robin: We’re creating 125 brand new jobs across the three properties that pay above marketplace wages, provide good benefits, and ultimately put money back in the local economy—that is good for all of us here in Merced and bodes well for the future.
Q: What has your experience been like recruiting and training your staffs?
Nothing fazed them, there was nothing they couldn’t overcome; their attitude has always been: this is the boat we’re in, now how do we row it to get to where we need to go.
— Robin Donovan
Sara: It’s been overwhelmingly positive. We initially thought that we would end up with a slightly older workforce, but due to the pandemic and all the college students who stayed home, the team skewed younger.
Their attitude has been great and moving forward, we are collaborating with WorkNet, Restore Merced, and Merced College, with whom we are working on hospitality training programs for their students.
Robin: I have to say, in all of the many openings that I’ve been part of, the Merced team stands out as being the most adaptable during very challenging times. We opened the Mainzer during a heat wave, a pandemic, and the air filled with smoke from the wildfires. Nothing fazed them, there was nothing they couldn’t overcome; their attitude has always been: this is the boat we’re in, now how do we row it to get to where we need to go. They are all so proud of being part of the new Merced and it shows in their effort and heart-felt hospitality.
Q: You’ve mentioned three pillars that are guiding the projects; can you expand on them?
Sara: Our three pillars speak to the bigger picture community ROI Robin mentioned earlier and they are:
Workforce development and the creation of meaningful jobs through training programs and internships.
Growing Merced, an effort of ongoing collaboration with the city, the county, and all stakeholders in order to continue to drive economic development for the city and county.
Education, which goes beyond just partnering with UC Merced and Merced College but extends all the way down through the entire education system. An example is our adoption of the Freemont Elementary School, with whom we recently did a backpack giveaway.
Robin: And then there’s our “semi-secret” fourth pillar: always do the right thing for downtown and for the people who live there; it’s all about what we can do to improve the experience and quality of life in our neighborhood and make Merced a better and more fun place to live and work.