A bill making its way to the state Senate floor would make it easier for companies to relocate to the former Castle Air Force Base, according to county officials.
The elimination of redevelopment agencies in 2011 limited the county's ability to sell property on the former military base.
County officials cannot sell sites there without going through a public auction process, according to state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, who sponsored the legislation.
"My bill remedies that and allows all old military bases to work outside of that high-bid environment," Cannella said.
Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County, said the public auction process is "cumbersome" and can discourage potential buyers.
By opening an auction to everyone, other parties could compete for a site while the firm that originally expressed interest and put together a proposal might lose out.
"It gave no assurance to the company that the county would ultimately select them," Hendrickson said. "It's a concern of ours that the process can scare off potential businesses since there's no certainty for negotiations to take place.
"We would rather approach it from a traditional setting where we can negotiate a deal with the buyers," he added.
Contracts for the sale of property at Castle would remain open to public scrutiny as they go through the review process with the Board of Supervisors. Four out of five supervisors would have to approve each contract.
The bill, however, would allow the county to work directly with prospective buyers to sell the former base's property rather than holding a public auction.
Assurance for buyers
"It gives the county a tool and prospective buyers more of an assurance that they'll be successful," Cannella said.
He said the auction process could detract from Castle's future economic growth.
"There were companies that were scared off," Cannella said. "They wanted to come in and make investments, but at the end of the day, they didn't know if they were able to buy the property. It's too much risk for the companies."
Last year, a Texas-based company supporting bio-science research was in talks with county officials about moving to Castle, according to Hendrickson.
Because there was no guarantee it would get the site in which it was interested, the company decided against moving ahead with the proposal, Hendrickson said.
"It underscores the point that we need to have a more business-friendly process in place," Hendrickson said.
Merced County Supervisors Hub Walsh and Linn Davis spoke at a Senate hearing last week in support of the bill.
"We're hopeful that the bill will give us another tool for bringing business and employment opportunities to Castle," Walsh said. "I support the bill because it's another tool for us in our revitalization of Castle."
More jobs possible
Davis said easing the redevelopment process could result in more jobs for Merced County.
"Companies want to relocate here and Merced County could use the jobs," he said in a news release.
Cannella agreed, calling Castle a diamond in the rough.
"When Castle reaches its potential, Merced County stands to gain tremendously," he said. "They just need the tools in order for it to be redeveloped."
The bill, introduced a second time by Cannella, passed through the committee with a unanimous vote last week and then was sent on to the Senate floor.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.