Merced County Times: Top leaders meet to consider future of Castle

Mar 19, 2015
In The News

Some of this area’s top government leaders gathered recently to discuss the future of the Castle Aviation and Commerce Center.

If you are not aware of the issues in Castle’s decades-old redevelopment saga, here are some of the key topics discussed: the current infrastructure, the cost of doing business in the park that businesses must take on, needed demolitions of buildings on the property, the current lack of easy access to Highway 99, and the lack of skilled workers staying in the region.

Present for the discussion were Merced Mayor Stan Thurston, Atwater Mayor Jim Price, Merced County Supervisors Hub Walsh and Daron McDaniel, State Assemblyman Adam Gray, State Senator Anthony Canella, Congressman Jim Costa, and officials from UC Merced, as well as Merced College President Ron Taylor.

And then there was Dr. Thomas Pogue, a regional economist with the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific. Dr. Pogue noted that over the last three decades, the “Employment Interchange” – showing the amount of people traveling into and out of the area for work – has risen 63 percent. Pogue says the increase has resulted in “a growing interdependence on the entire Northern San Joaquin Valley.” He also noted income levels among permanent residents have dropped and remained below the national average since the 1980s.

“This is the challenge of the economic base of the Central Valley,” Pogue said, “and this is the issue that creates the gap between those who have the ‘schooling and knowledge’ intensive-based economies and the more traditional, resource-based economies.”

Reflecting on Pogue’s research numbers, Supervisor Walsh wanted to know exactly what types of jobs were driving an estimated 20,000 county residents to commute out of the area for work.

“What we have sometimes is a perception that we don’t have an educated and trained workforce,” Walsh said. “It would assist us if we knew what those jobs were when we are marketing this area to businesses.”

Pogue said his research did include “high-level occupation information,” and said he would provide that to officials. Meanwhile, Steven Ames, vice president of the Stanislaus County Alliance, cited his organization’s survey of 200 businesses in the area.

“We’re seeing difficulty in recruiting upper-level management and certain skill sets,” Ames said. “The big challenge is that people with skill sets in this region are going to use them just over the hill.”

New businesses, he said, want to “know they’ll be able to have people to staff, and if you can’t prove it, they’ll just look at another site.”

Ames went on to discuss the importance of developing plans to combat the bad reputation California has of being a place that is difficult to do business in. He said leaders need to take time to look at how to reduce business start-up fees. “Enhanced permitting” could be a huge asset for this area, Ames said.

Mark Hendrickson, the county’s director of Community and Economic Development, summed up the remaining points – starting with the lack of a direct route from Castle to Highway 99. In addition to the physical distance, Hendrickson said there are also railroad tracks, a school, and several traffic signals to consider.

He pointed out that leaders need to figure out utility costs to update the existing infrastructure including sewage and water, as well as the need to demolish more than 50 buildings to make way for the redevelopment process.

Hendrickson also elaborated on the need to add more “economic tools for our tool belt” to help entice business into Castle, and particularly to enhance the non-airport side of the property.

Congressman Costa elaborated on this idea saying that it may be of use to visit other former bases to see which directions they have went. Assemblyman Gray agreed with this sentiment as well. Congressman Costa continued saying that it may be beneficial to speak with the Federal Aviation Administration as they may be able to clear the use of land that was previously sectioned off as part of the airport, but is no longer used as such. Other ideas that arose during the discussion included making use of the large amount of land adjacent to the prison and the base if it is not of a security concern.

Congressman Costa added this to his list of items to look into.

Assemblyman Gray ended the meeting, saying that he felt the discussion went well and he’d like to revisit the subject and develop a regular meeting schedule that brings everyone together every three months.

He said it was important to remember that while the transportation infrastructure is certainly important, everyone should also take into consideration the human infrastructure that is being developed by UC Merced and Merced Community College.