Former Hollywood stunt woman revitalizing downtown Merkel

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MERKEL Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – Tootie Bland was born in California and spent many years as a Hollywood stunt actress and animal handler.

Now she resides in a little town called Noodle, just miles outside Merkel, Texas. Tootie says she has been very blessed in her life and wants to spread that fortune to the folks she loves.

“I got to marry the man of my dreams. We shared the most wonderful world with horses and friends and people. It’s my time to give back, and that’s what we’re going to do,” says Bland.

Her late husband was a local boy whose family owned businesses and land in Merkel. This connection has become Tootie’s link to the area and the history of this little town.

“Merkel is a town I always felt had a great amount of potential,” Bland said.

It all started, she says, with a little home on Oak Street that was built in the early 1900s.

“I walked in that house and said, ‘I can’t let this happen, you can’t tear this house down,” said Bland.

The purchase and renovation of that home set off a chain of purchases of historic Merkel buildings. Now buildings on an entire block are being stripped down to their foundations, getting restored to what they once were.

“All these buildings hold a history and belonged to some family. Those families are still here,” says Bland.

That connection between the people and their town is a link Tootie says she doesn’t want to sever, leading her to recruit local talent for everything from construction and design to mural work.

“I remember these buildings one way: boarded up. The windows behind me are still boarded up,” says Merkel resident and professional muralist Chera Chaney.

Chaney grew up in Merkel, but when her art career took off she followed it out of town. Now, thanks to Tootie, she’s back to make a mark on the place that made her who she is.

“It’s kind of a life highlight because I’m getting to do what I love, but also do it in my hometown where I grew up,” Chaney says.

This local involvement has sparked a new excitement in the people of Merkel, according to Chaney.

“People who have had some of these shops for years are actually starting to clean them out. They’ve seen that the whole town is really starting to show up and clean up. They want to be a part of that,” said Chaney.

While most of the community response has been positive, Bland acknowledges that not everyone is on board.

“There has been some push back from city officials because change is hard,” Bland said.

Though she believes that if Merkel is to thrive, change of some sort is necessary.

“We have two choices here: either we change and grow, or we’re gonna die,” she says. “We’ve had a slow decline where our businesses have left town. Our young, smart kids have left town.”

Once completed, Merkel will be home to a courtyard, a tap house, locally sourced meat and produce markets, an art gallery, and restaurants. These are just a few of the things she hopes will spark a new identity for Merkel as a destination, all while keeping what makes it unique in tact.

“I truly believe that there is a time and that time is now, that people are coming back to a simpler and better lifestyle. We can go to a small bakery and take our grandparents and have a cup of coffee,” Bland says. “Hometown life is important and it’s worth preserving.”

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