Some of the faces of economic depression in our region

Merced Sun-Star
Merced Theatre: Reopening of a crown jewel
After about five years of careful restoration of light fixtures, the dazzling marquee and castle facade, the Merced Theatre on Main Street will have its opening night Saturday with a gala celebration.
About 830 tickets had been sold as of Friday afternoon, according to Tom Frazier, a member on the Merced Theatre Foundation board.
He estimated there would be about 1,000 people downtown tonight for the food, music and musical performances, including performances by Tara Kamangar and the Merced Symphony. Kamangar\'s father, retired orthopedic surgeon Art Kamangar, donated $1 million to the project. The Art Kamangar Center portion of the complex is named after him.
 Timeline: Merced Theatre, 1931-2012
The theater features elaborate light fixtures and more than 1,000 red and red-and-gold floral-patterned seats within its interior. There is a castle facade inside, running along the walls on each side of the seats with a gray, stormy sky painted overhead.
The $14.4 million project, which includes $8.3 million in construction costs, is the largest such venue in the county. Most of the funds for the project have come from a combination of tax credits, loans, federal, state and city dollars and local donations, according to Elaine Post, the city\'s development manager. The Merced Theatre Foundation also donated $1.7 million.
Post, who took over theater responsibilities on behalf of the city, recalled how she used to go there to watch movies on Saturdays as a kid.
"If you were raised in Merced and knew the theater in its original state, it\'s very exciting. It takes you back in time and makes you feel good to be sitting in there," she said. "That\'s our history."
When it opened in 1931, the building\'s interior looked like the inside of a Spanish courtyard, with a machine that projected clouds onto the ceiling. In 1978, the theater\'s interior was ripped out and it was turned into a multiplex. The city restored the building\'s interior to the way it looked in the 1930s.
Post said that those who never saw the theater back in its heyday can appreciate the historic components. "It\'s incredibly beautiful. They\'re going to have that respect for absolute original beauty," Post said.
The theater will be run by the Merced Theatre Foundation.
Frazier said the restored performance venue would revitalize downtown. Post echoed his sentiments, saying the theater would draw in musicians, comedians and bands as well as the younger population of the county and UC Merced.
"It will be a draw to the downtown, and assist and improve the economy in the area," she said.
There are $50 balcony seats available for the performances only. Visit

Merced Sun-Star
Mike Tharp: The doctor who helped the lame to walk and helped restore a theater

Dr. Art Kamangar stands in the balcony of the restored Merced Theatre. His $1 million donation helped get the matching funds to finish the 14-year, $14 million renovation of the classic 1931 theater.
Its grand reopening will be April 21. He\'ll be in the front row. His daughter Tara will play the piano and perform with the Merced Symphony on stage.
The 74-year-old retired orthopedic surgeon gazes at the 1,100 new seats, the Spanish courtyard decor of the elevated box seats on each side, the ruby curtain across the stage.
 Does he have a feeling of fatherhood about the project that marks one of the most important milestones in Merced\'s cultural history?
"More a sense of relief," the trim, Iranian-born philanthropist says softly. "Now all the people of Merced can enjoy this."
His legacy was already assured before he ever became a benefactor and board member of the Merced Theatre Foundation. In medical circles he became well-known for an innovation that helped make the transplant of artificial hips safer and more durable.
His $500,000 donation endowed a chair at UC Merced. For 25 years, since he moved to Merced from the Bay Area, Kamangar Ranches, which specializes in fruit orchards, kept his "retirement" busy.
And the achievements of his two sons and daughter have made him more proud of them than any of his own accomplishments. Salar, 35, is CEO of YouTube and a senior vice president of Google. ("Do you realize YouTube collects more than 2 billion items every 24 hours?" Art marvels.) His other son, Arya, 28, holds a Ph.D. in modern languages and has studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of Mainz in Germany and in Japan. And daughter Tara, an honors graduate from Harvard and London\'s Royal Academy of Music, has been called "a huge talent" at the piano by the London Evening Standard.
Now, like the keystone of one of the theater\'s arches, that legacy will include what some believe will be a cultural tipping point that will not only revitalize downtown Merced. Many think the theater will become an entertainment hub for the whole Valley -- music, drama, ballet, cinema, opera, graduations, weddings -- all manner of special events whose economic tides will lift all local boats.
Not bad for the second-youngest of eight children born to his parents in Tehran. His family were investors before and during the days of the Shah\'s rule in Iran.
Art had left his native soil after getting a medical degree, years before the 1979 revolution that brought the mullahs to power. He did his internship and residency in Pittsburgh, Pa., in the \'60s. "I was always interested in total hip arthroplasty," he says over lunch at Fernando\'s Bistro.
He contributed to the research done by Sir John Charnley, the British surgeon who pioneered the artificial hip. The Briton\'s main breakthrough was an artificial hip that placed metal against high-density polyurethane, a plastic. Earlier metal-on-metal devices had proved painful and vulnerable to metal fatigue.
Art\'s contribution was to determine the right size of the femoral head in an artificial hip. He and Sir John published a scientific paper in the \'60s with Art\'s calculation that 22 millimeters (he holds his hand up and makes a circle the size of a quarter with four fingers pressed against his thumb to show the dimension) was the ideal width to make an artificial hip work well.
"Normally, it was much bigger," he recalls. "If the femoral head had been as big as normal, there would be no space for the socket (from the pelvis). If it were smaller (than 22 millimeters), it would have bored into the high-density polyurethane and there would have been much quicker wear."
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The procedure wasn\'t approved in the U.S. till 1972. So Art moved to London to practice, where it was allowed. He performed the first such surgery in Sweden and several other countries. "In those days it was extremely rare that a surgeon could do that operation," he shrugs.
He operated. Within a few days, a patient would be walking with no pain. Some even ran. "It was very gratifying to me," he says.
Eventually, he settled and practiced in the Bay Area. He did well enough to retire early. And so in 1987 he moved to Merced and started the ranch.
Why Merced? "I really love Merced and Merced people," he says. "I\'ve helped as much as I can."
He\'s traveled the world, including a recent ski trip to France (because our nearby mountains didn\'t have enough snow), but he hasn\'t been back to Iran since the revolution.
Hesitating to drop a name, he concedes that his friend Bill Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, "used to tell me that he enjoyed Iran among all the countries he visited."
He credits his parents for his success: "They helped me the best by disciplining me." The virtues he values most: honesty and hard work.
Art speaks English, Farsi and "a bit of" Swedish, French and Spanish. He keeps lean by snow and water skiing and playing tennis.
For him, during his lifetime the most important event was the fall of communism. "It\'s amazing how East and West Germany recuperated to become the strongest economy in Europe," he says with a small shake of his head. "And so many of the Soviet countries have done well."
Over lunch he consults a handwritten piece of paper, with notes on both sides. He wants to be sure to mention everybody who has helped bring the dream of a restored Merced Theatre to reality. (Katherine Crookham, chair; Andrea Stoddard, foundation manager; L. Carmen Ramirez, a director; Grey Roberts, treasurer ... many others. The Sun-Star will cite them in our stories, columns, blogs, photos and videos leading up to the grand gala.)
As for his $1 million contribution, "if we would have not had the funding, we would lose the matching funds," he says, "and the restoration wouldn\'t have been possible."
To him, the theatre is now "a national treasure."
Even more important are his children. "When I call them, I say, \'Do your best and be happy!\' I retired early, much younger than most of my colleagues, so I could spend time with them."
Dr. Art Kamangar is a Mercedian. The Iranian-born immigrant who helped revolutionize hip surgery is one of us. He moved here. He lives here. He loves Merced and its people.
One recent afternoon he had a flat tire. It happened near a local gas station. A young man came over, changed the tire, fixed the old one and declined Art\'s offer of money. "He told me, \'You have done so much for us.\' But people in Merced have helped me generously."
And at the corner of Main and Martin Luther King Jr. Way stands proof that Dr. Art Kamangar\'s big heart has helped us even more.

By Octavio Nuiry, Staff Writer
Last week, a Modesto, Calif., man facing foreclosure shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy and the locksmith who came to evict him from his condominium, according to the Associated Press. Responding to the shooting, Modesto police sent 100 police and SWAT snipers to counter-attack, unleashing a Waco-style assault on the condo complex that ended with the structure burned to the ground along with the shooter inside.
The  shooter who died, James Ferrario, 45, lost his condo over a $15,000 home equity loan he took out a couple of years ago that went through the foreclosure process. The Modesto Bee claims the Modesto police department is armed to the teeth, having recently stockpiled $4.5 million in surplus military arms and equipment.
Foreclosed Homes Fatalities
This  is not the first so-called “death by foreclosure” case. Others have occurred in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, among other places. A Phoenix SWAT officer gunned down Kurt Aho, 64, who lost his home to foreclosure in 2009, according to The Arizona Republic. In Florida, police shot Allen Gauntlett, 52, a distressed homeowner several times and set his foreclosed townhouse on fire after falling behind on $10,000 in homeowners’ dues and fees, according to CBS News. In Ohio, Robert T. Nusser, 68, and his wife, Paulette Nusser, 64, committed a murder-suicide after receiving an eviction notice the day before, ABC reported.
Foreclosures: A Danger to Your Health
There are many more accounts of people living in foreclosure homes that have been assaulted by police trying to evict them.\\ In Georgia, a six-hour SWAT standoff ended when police tasered a stroke victim’s wife.
Readers, what are your thoughts about these cases of death by foreclosure? Are police justified in shooting borrowers in foreclosure? Or have police gotten too trigger-happy raiding foreclosed homes, shooting first and asking questions later?
Where do you stand?

54 Percent of U.S. Metros Post Quarterly Increase in Foreclosure Activity in First Quarter…RealtyTrac Staff
Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, New York, Among Cities With Biggest Quarterly Increases
Foreclosure Activity Still Down From Year Ago in Majority of U.S. Metros

IRVINE, Calif. – April 26, 2012 – RealtyTrac® (, the leading online marketplace for foreclosure properties, today released its Q1 2012 Metropolitan Foreclosure Market Report, which shows first quarter foreclosure activity increased from the previous quarter in 114 out of the nation’s 212 metropolitan areas with a population of 200,000 or more.
First quarter foreclosure activity increased from the previous quarter in 26 out of the nation’s 50 largest metro areas, led by Pittsburgh (up 49 percent), Indianapolis (up 37 percent), Philadelphia (up 30 percent), New York (up 24 percent), Raleigh, N.C. (up 23 percent), and Virginia Beach, Va. (up 22 percent).
The biggest quarterly decreases in foreclosure activity among the 50 largest metro areas were in Portland, Ore. (down 28 percent), Las Vegas (down 26 percent), Providence, R.I. (down 24 percent), Salt Lake City (down 22 percent), Boston (down 21 percent), and San Jose, Calif. (down 21 percent).
“First quarter metro foreclosure trends were a mixed bag,” said Brandon Moore, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. “While the majority of metro areas continued to show foreclosure activity down from a year ago, more than half reported increasing foreclosure activity from the previous quarter — an early sign that long-dormant foreclosures are coming out of hibernation in many local markets.”
Foreclosure activity down on annual basis in 64 percent of metros
Despite the quarterly increase in more than half of the metro areas tracked in the report, first quarter foreclosure activity was still down compared to the first quarter of 2011 in 135 out of the 212 metro areas (64 percent).
Thirty-three of the nation’s 50 largest metro areas posted year-over-year decreases in foreclosure activity, led by Las Vegas (down 61 percent), Seattle (down 53 percent), Austin, Texas (down 51 percent), Salt Lake City (down 49 percent), and Buffalo, N.Y. (down 47 percent).
The biggest annual increases in foreclosure activity among the 50 largest metro areas were in Orlando (up 52 percent), Indianapolis (up 41 percent), Hartford, Conn. (up 38 percent), Miami (up 37 percent), and Philadelphia (up 33 percent).
Top 20 metro foreclosure rates
Stockton, Calif.,
posted the nation’s highest metropolitan foreclosure rate in the first quarter. One in every 60 housing units in the Stockton metro area had a foreclosure filing during the quarter — more than three times the national average. There were a total of 3,912 Stockton properties with foreclosure filings in the first quarter, down 13 percent from the fourth quarter of 2011 and down 19 percent from the first quarter of 2011.
Nearby Modesto, Calif., posted a foreclosure rate that was fractionally lower than the foreclosure rate in Stockton — giving Modesto the nation’s second highest metro foreclosure rate. Ten other California cities joined Stockton and Modesto among the nation’s Top 20 metro foreclosure rates: Riverside-San Bernardino (No. 3), Vallejo-Fairfield (No. 4), Merced (No. 5),  Sacramento (No. 6), Bakersfield (No. 7), Visalia-Porterville (No. 10), Fresno (No. 12), Oxnard-Thousand Oaks (No. 14), Chico (No. 18), and Santa Rosa-Petaluma (No. 20).
Reporting one in every 82 housing units with a foreclosure filing in the first quarter, the foreclosure rate in the Las Vegas-Paradise metro area dropped to eighth highest nationwide thanks to a substantial drop-off in foreclosure activity. A total of 10,192 Las Vegas properties had a foreclosure filing during the quarter, down 26 percent from the fourth quarter and down 61 percent from the first quarter of 2011.
A total of 20,787 properties in the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, Ariz., metro area had a foreclosure filing in the first quarter, down 5 percent from the previous quarter and down 43 percent from the first quarter of 2011. That gave Phoenix the nation’s ninth highest metro foreclosure rate for the quarter: one in every 87 housing units with a foreclosure filing.
Other metro areas with foreclosure rates among the Top 20 included Atlanta (No. 11), Miami (No. 13), Orlando (No. 15), Rockford, Ill., (No. 16), Chicago (No. 17), and Prescott, Ariz. (No. 19).
Top foreclosure rates among 50 largest metros
The Riverside-San Bernardino metro area in Southern California registered the highest foreclosure rate among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas: one in every 62 housing units with a foreclosure filing during the quarter — more than three times the national average.
Seven other metros among the nation’s 50 largest registered foreclosure rates that were more than twice the national average:
Sacramento, Calif. (one in 77 housing units), Las Vegas (one in 82 housing units), Phoenix (one in 87 housing units), Atlanta (one in 90 housing units), Miami (one in 95 housing units), Orlando (one in 101 housing units), and Chicago (one in 107 housing units)...
Merced Sun-Star
Save Mart closing two Merced stores
Layoffs may be coming
A city that\'s struggled with poor grocery store access and unemployment could soon be getting more of both.
Save Mart Supermarkets announced Friday that it will shut down one of its three Merced stores and convert another to one of its FoodMaxx outlets. The third Save Mart, at 150 W. Olive Ave., will stay open.
The store at 1300 W. Olive Ave. will be converted to the chain\'s discount warehouse format after it closes June 1. The Save Mart at 1136 W. Main St., which opened in 1987, will close after the FoodMaxx opens.
Save Mart chronology
Here are some key points in the history of Save Mart, the grocery store chain founded and headquartered in Modesto:
1952: The first Save Mart opens on Crows Landing Road in Modesto. Mike Piccinini and his brother-in-law Nick Tocco are the owners.
1971: Chief Executive Officer Mike Piccinini dies. His son Bob becomes CEO in 1981.
1986: Save Mart opens its first FoodMaxx, a warehouse-style grocery store, in Bakersfield.
1989: Save Mart buys 27 Fry\'s Food Stores in the Bay Area.
2002: Save Mart buys out 28 Food 4 Less locations in California and turns them into FoodMaxx stores.
2003: Save Mart Center, a multipurpose arena, opens at California State University, Fresno.
2006: Save Mart officials announce a deal to purchase 132 Albertsons stores in Northern California and Nevada. When the deal is finalized, Save Mart Supermarkets will own 256 stores, making it the second-largest grocery store chain in Northern California.
FEBRUARY 2007: Save Mart acquires
130 Albertsons stores in Northern California and Northern Nevada.
JULY 2007: Save Mart revives the Lucky name for the 72 Albertsons stores in the Bay Area. Albertsons in other parts of Northern California are under the Save Mart name.
FEBRUARY 2010: Save Mart opens its
$6 million flagship store in Modesto, bringing its total Modesto stores to six out of its 131 Save Marts. The chain also owns 113 Lucky and FoodMaxx stores in Central and Northern California.
The move was made because both the stores were struggling, said Alicia Rockwell, public affairs director for Modesto-based Save Mart Supermarkets.
"We certainly waited as long as we could, but we are currently assessing a lot of our different store locations and looking for opportunities to make them more profitable and make them fit the neighborhood," she said.
Rockwell wouldn\'t say exactly how many layoffs could come from the changes, but said there are fewer than 100 employees at the two affected stores.
She added that the workers will have options, including positions at the new FoodMaxx, which might open in early July, or openings at other stores in the area.
Any decisions about layoffs would come after it\'s determined which employees can be transferred, Rockwell said. "The potential is there based on the marketplace, but we\'re working very hard with our employees and with our union representative to try to mitigate that impact," she said.
Although Rockwell wouldn\'t confirm any layoffs, Save Mart employee Sarojani Prasad said they are coming.
Employees started hearing rumors Wednesday of stores closing, she said. Corporate officials met with employees Friday and told them some could be transferred to other stores, while others will be laid off. The decisions will be based on seniority.
"It\'s hard," Prasad said after she got the news Friday. "I hope, I hope they don\'t lay me off because my husband is not working."
For a city with an unemployment rate of 20 percent, local officials see any job losses as an unfortunate blow to hopes of economic recovery.
Mayor Stan Thurston said the closures compound already serious economic and employment problems in Merced, especially since most Save Mart employees earn union wages.
"It sure doesn\'t help," he said.
Thurston questioned why the store would be shut down when the economy is starting to pick up in some areas. "Unfortunately, we\'re getting too used to bad news, and we\'re doing everything we can to turn it around," he said.
While the site on Olive Avenue will be swapped out for a FoodMaxx, those who frequented the Main Street location will have to find another grocery outlet.
Many South Merced residents have expressed concerns over not having access to grocery stores in their neighborhoods, and removing the site from Main Street could further limit their options.
Frank Quintero, Merced\'s economic development director, said the city has been aware of coming changes to the stores. Merced has a reasonable resident-to-grocery store ratio but South Merced is lacking similar options, he said.
"We need stronger grocery store presence in South Merced, especially in the southwest portion," he said.
Quintero said the city is working with developers and leasing agents to encourage grocery stores to consider locating at a proposed six-acre shopping center at Childs Avenue and Canal Street.
Stockton Record
Hammer S-Mart to close Feb. 11
By The Record
The store, at 3233 W. Hammer Lane, is one of four S-Marts in Stockton. It contains a full-service pharmacy.
The stores are part of the 241-store, Modesto-based Save Mart Supermarket chain.
The chain - which includes Save Mart, S-Mart, Lucky and Food Max outlets - celebrated its 50th year in business Tuesday.
The first store opened on Jan. 17, 1952, in Modesto.
The chain has a distribution center in Lathrop.
Fresno Bee
Save Mart to close Fresno store at Fruit, McKinley
By Bethany Clough
Save Mart plans to close its store at Fruit and McKinley avenues in Fresno, the company announced Monday.
The store will close Feb. 9.
Modesto-based Save Mart blamed the closure on the faltering economy and competition from other retailers, according to a statement released Monday.
The store is in a building that was built in 1964, with Save Mart opening there in 1996. At 20,350 square feet, it is smaller than many other Save Mart stores, but served Tower District residents and others who didn\'t have another grocery store nearby.
According to Save Mart\'s news release: "A small, out-of-date grocery store, nevertheless, it faithfully served its neighborhood community for the past 16 years not only selling groceries but supporting local schools and organizations." ... Feb. 9.Save Mart spokeswoman Alicia Rockwell said the company would try to place employees at other stores.
The property is in the process of being sold to a new owner, but has not closed escrow yet, said Tom Anderson, a partner in Fresno-based Commercial Retail Associates. He declined to comment further.
Save Mart has closed four stores in the Fresno area since late 2010, including stores in Kerman and Sanger, and on Figarden Drive in Fresno. The store at Bullard and Minnewawa avenues in Clovis that closed in November will reopen as a Dollar General store with an emphasis on groceries.
Save Mart has 11 stores and four FoodMaxx stores left in the Fresno area.