Merced County departments merge, Castle Commerce Center assessed

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJuly 2, 2013 

Two existing Merced County departments will be merged to form a new one — a move officials say will save the county $53,074 over the next fiscal year.

In addition to the consolidation, the director of that newly-formed department introduced an economic development plan, which includes an assessment of Castle Commerce Center.

County supervisors last week approved combining the Commerce, Aviation and Economic Development Department with the Planning Department. The two departments will now be called the "Community and Economic Development Department."

Mark Hendrickson, who served as the director of Commerce, Aviation and Economic Development as well as the interim planning director, will be the director of the new department.

There isn't a salary increase with the new position, other than a 10 percent increase Hendrickson got when he became interim planning director a year ago — about $560 every two weeks. The salary range for his position is $110,115.20 to $133,952.00.

Hendrickson said the move allows the county to become more efficient and save money by streamlining economic efforts with land-use.

"By aligning those functions together, we are enhancing the county's economic development and moving at the speed of the private sector," he said.

The board approved changing Hendrickson's vacant director position to a lower-level "Deputy Director of Economic Development" job, paying $90,584 to $110,110 a year. Recruitment is set to begin in a few weeks.

The first item of business Hendrickson addressed under his new title was an economic development strategy with four separate components — all of which were unanimously approved by the board.

The plan begins with a market analysis of Castle Commerce Center. The former air force base hasn't been analyzed since a 2007 environmental study and a 2011 review of its airport facilities.

Hendrickson said this assessment will look at Castle's nonairport land and explore how the airport can be used to deliver goods around the world.

"This is an outstanding opportunity for us to identify what Castle's future holds so we can better market the facility," Hendrickson said.

The analysis will cost $10,000 plus expenses, according to county documents.

Next, Hendrickson recommended developing a "County-specific Economic Development Plan" — which determines "where we are today, where we want to go, and how to reach our economic goals."

The plan, which will cost around $37,000, will engage every part of the county through stakeholder workshops and focus groups. Business owners and the public are welcome to attend the workshops.

"This is an opportunity for us to create a more robust economic program based on community input," Hendrickson said.

Once the plan is put together, a consultant will draft a "strategy document" prioritizing current economic projects in the county and its six cities. The $5,000 endeavor will open the door for federal economic grants and funding, Hendrickson said.

Jim Brown, county executive officer, said the economic development strategies, including the Castle Market Analysis, are "necessary steps to identify ways to improve our local business climate, stay competitive and further develop the resources we already have."

The last piece of the economic plan is a membership in the California Central Valley Economic Development Organization. The $15,000 one-year membership allows the county to receive "leads" about businesses looking to open, relocate or grow in California.

"It will help us learn of opportunities that we otherwise have not been receiving," Hendrickson said. "You can't compete (for leads) if you're not aware of them. This will give us an opportunity to be aware and compete with other counties."

John Bramble, Merced city manager, said the membership will have benefits for the city. The membership will allow city officials to respond more quickly to business leads because they'll all go to one place.

"The benefit for all of us is the fact that we've got one location where those leads will come, and we can focus our attention on responding to them," Bramble said. "This is a great collaboration between the counties and the city."

The cost of all the economic projects will be covered through general funding already identified in the 2013-14 proposed budget, Hendrickson said.

Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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