By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College
First-term Merced City Council Member Sarah Boyle doesn’t have time to rehash how she won her campaign in November and became the youngest member of the current council, at age 32.
She has time to work a full-time job, support family and friends, and spend every other moment doing the work of a civil servant.
Boyle’s motto? “Merced is the gold. We just have to keep digging to find it.”
Where does one start?
Boyle, a Merced High and Merced College alumna, has only ever lived in Merced, save five years she spent working and earning her B.A. at Fresno State. Returning to town to work at UC Merced in 2016, and chatting with colleagues who weren’t from here or didn’t live here, opened her eyes.
“I would tell them how my friends and I would ride 4-wheelers in the field across from the campus site,” she said. “Everyone thought that was so weird.”
She kept mulling on the memories and feeling more strongly how much she loved Merced and wanted to help write its next chapter.
“I think every day about growing up in Merced and what we’re doing to make it a better place,” Boyle said.
When residents grouse that Merced can’t attract big chain restaurants and stores, Boyle insists it can. She tells people Merced will attract new commerce when its population reaches 100,000 and more residents gain more education.
Diplomas in hand, they can earn more money, which they can then spend at new businesses in town.
Boyle says Merced College’s recent decision to partner with UC Merced to build the Merced Promise transfer program will boost that goal.
The official pathway could further encourage graduates to stay in the area. As the region grows, those people will see they can also excel professionally and socially right here in Merced.
“Part of me wants to tell everyone to take that leap of faith, to go to school here and put their money into this area,” Boyle said. “That’s how we will thrive.”
Downtown Merced is on the cusp of a great renaissance.
Along Main Street, the Tioga Apartments are an upscale rental property located in the repurposed 93-year old Tioga Hotel. The updated Mainzer Theater will host comedy and theater shows. The El Capitan Hotel, with in-house restaurants, is a Hyatt property with a boutique feel.
Down the road, the high-speed rail will eventually drop visitors off one block off Main Street at N and 16th Streets.
“People in Merced are begging for these kinds of facilities and entertainment,” Boyle said. “Like, my mom and dad saw The Doors in Merced years ago. We want to see that happen again. Other university towns do it. Why can’t we?”
Boyle is also always trying to sort out what to do about the Merced Mall. It’s in her district. In 2017, the owners announced they would remodel it, but the initial rush of excitement has faded as the economy slowed.
“We have this never-ending conversation—why do people go out of town to shop?” she said. “We are working on how to restart the project. Malls aren’t dead. Have you ever been to River Park in Fresno? It’s busy all week.”
The council wants to boost its profile by maybe staging a regular farmers market on weeknights. Boyle wants to do whatever will tempt young people to shop and eat there, like she did as a teenager.
“It would be some place fun and different for people who don’t live downtown,” she said.
The key to any progress is getting constituents fired up. “If I could, I’d be a professional volunteer,” Boyle said. “Anyone can point the finger and say, ‘Fix this!’”
Since her return home, Boyle has volunteered with the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce, the city’s Charter Review Committee, and Women Unite. She completed the Leadership Merced program and helped start an organization to help women in crisis.
Even her full-time job informs Boyle’s public role. With TransCounty Title, she works with “people who are selling Merced” as a great place to live.
And, on days she’s not chatting up strangers during lunches at the Mainzer, she might be visiting a constituent to mull over a problematic tree.
“Showing up is the job,” she said. “If I don’t come, the problem won’t be solved. If our residents don’t show up and get involved, we can’t grow.”
Boyle knows where the city is headed.
“Merced is at a tipping point,” Boyle said. “I feel the next four years will significantly change this town, and I hope people are ready for it.”