OAKDALE -- After spending about $1 million to buy and renovate the Hershey Visitors Center four years ago, the city will shutter the downtown building and relocate city staff to save money.
The city started moving employees a few weeks ago. The last employees should be out of the building next week. Officials estimate Oakdale will save $60,000 annually in utilities, maintenance and other costs.
Oakdale bought the 5,400-square-foot building, which sits on a quarter acre, from the Hershey Co. in early 2008 for $650,000. That's the same year Hershey closed its Oakdale plant and moved production to Mexico, leaving a few hundred workers without jobs.
City officials say Oakdale spent an additional $300,000 to $350,000 renovating and furnishing the building. At its peak, the building housed about 15 city employees who worked in public works, recreation, planning and community development. Those workers have been and are being relocated to City Hall and the city's corporation yard.
When Oakdale bought the visitors center, city officials said the price was a bargain (Hershey had listed it for sale at $1.1 million) and the city needed more space for its workers.
"It's a no-brainer for us," said then-Mayor Farrell Jackson in January 2008. "We were looking for an office building when this came up."
Since buying the visitors center, Oakdale has shed about 20 percent of its full-time workers as it has cut spending in the recession, and now has about 90 full-time employees.
"This is a cost-saving measure for us," interim City Manager Stan Feathers said. "It's a way to save on maintenance and utilities and still provide the same level of service to our residents."
Feathers said the city will explore its options regarding the visitors center's future, but declined to give details.
The city used redevelopment agency money and development services reserves to buy the visitors center. The purchase has been controversial. It was one of Mayor Pat Paul's criticisms of Jackson when she defeated him in the 2010 mayoral election.
She said the redevelopment agency money would have been better spent on F Street, one of Oakdale's main corridors. She also noted that because the city bought the visitors center, it was no longer taxable property.
"This was not a good use of redevelopment," Paul said Tuesday.
She served on the City Council in the late 1980s that used redevelopment to try to revitalize that part of downtown.
The city's redevelopment agency sold Hershey the quarter-acre for the visitors center for $56,295 in 1989, according to documents filed at the Stanislaus County clerk recorder's office.
Hershey built the visitors center near F Street and Yosemite Avenue, but the other food-themed businesses the city hoped would follow never materialized.
"We were just hoping that that whole area would take off, but it did not," Paul said.