Merced soccer center used by thousands to close. Will grow, distribute weed, owner says


An indoor soccer facility used by thousands of children and adults in Merced will be turned into a marijuana cultivation site, the building’s owner confirmed on Friday.

The Merced Indoor Sports Center at 115 Heron Way was recently approved as a site to grow, manufacture and distribute cannabis, according to city records.

The plans have upset parents who say closing the soccer center is a problem in a town they say has few recreational options for children. The most common question asked by the parents was “Why?”

“It’s kind of a sad feeling because we’ve been coming here for years,” Joel Del Toro said. “There’s so many places where they can grow weed.”

The Winton man, who plays in an adult league there himself, said he’s brought his two sons to play for close to a decade. “They want to reduce gangs and everything, and they take away a place for kids to distract themselves,” he said. “Where are they going to go?”

Fernando Aguilera, who oversees several soccer activities in town, said the indoor games have called the Heron address home for about 15 years. About 3,000 people use the facility where children and families play on the weekends and adults are on the pitch throughout the week.

He said the current soccer season ends in about five weeks. He was quick to note the building’s owners have the right to use it however they want. Still, he said, “It’s sad.”

Children start there as early as age 3 and there are multiple games every day. Aguilera said he has no hard feelings for the building’s owner, James Moulton, but wished city leaders had considered how many people could be hurt by potentially losing the soccer arena.

“Thousands and thousands of people. It’s a big impact,” he said. “I’m disappointed with the city of Merced and the planning commissioners.”

Playing as a goalie Friday night was Jose Guadalupe Garcia, who said he supports the cannabis industry in general, but said this project could have a negative effect in south Merced. “This is a community that’s been here forever and they don’t take that into consideration,” he said.

Several parents said the facility is used almost entirely by Hispanic families, saying they find it hard to believe a facility that served thousands of white families and children would get the same treatment.’

The project approved Aug. 8 by the Planning Commission calls for the nearly 2-acre parcel to have up to 10,000 square feet of plant cultivation on the land owned by Moulton, according to city records. Organic Trichome Inc. is set to operate the site that also includes manufacturing and a distribution facility for cannabis, records show.

Moulton said he is working with local real estate agents to find a new home for the indoor soccer leagues, noting the sites must fit the needs specific to indoor soccer.

“We’re trying to make it a seamless transition. Fernando’s my friend,” he said. “I don’t want to make excuses. Fernando’s a great guy. We’re moving on and he’s going to move on. I’m going to help him move forward.”

The Heron address is one of four sites that are set to house cannabis-related businesses that don’t include a dispensary, according to Scott McBride, Merced’s director of development services. He said the city is also helping the group find a new home for their indoor leagues.

Moulton said he appreciates what the leagues do for the community. He declined to discuss why he is getting into the marijuana business.

“I do not want to shut down Merced Indoor Soccer. We just want to relocate them,” he said. “I’ve got some contributions already to help, and I’ve offered to pay some of the expenses.”

TM Indoor Soccer 1
Adults play Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, on the soccer pitch used by about 3,000 children and adults every month in the Merced Indoor Sports Center at 115 Heron Way. Parents and others reacted with outrage on Friday when they learned the facility will be turned into a cannabis business.
Thaddeus Miller

Aguilera estimates it would cost close to $200,000 to move, noting the indoor carpet would have to be completely replaced.

For the parents whose children are enamored with the sport, the uncertainty and potential loss of the facility is an outrage. Carmen Ponce said her 9-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter play soccer, the sport they love. The indoor site is one of Merced’s few options for very young children, and only all-weather facility.

It’s routine for the city to notify businesses or residents within some many feet of a project, but Heron Way is relatively remote with no homes nearby. “The (businesses) across the street don’t care what’s here,” Ponce said. “Why didn’t they let the parents know?”

She said her boy dreams of being the next Lionel Messi, an Argentine player considered by many to be the best player alive. Her son heard her discussing the potentially permanent closure on the phone.

“How do you explain that to your kids?” she asked. “They spend almost every weekend here and they’re going to close it for marijuana.”