Sierra Academy of Aeronautics moves ahead with $30 million project at Castle Airport in Atwater

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comDecember 9, 2013 

CW New Taxiway at Castle

The control tower at Castle Airport is seen here on August 15.

CHRISTOPHER WINTERFELDT — Merced Sun-Star Buy Photo

— The owners of the Atwater-based Sierra Academy of Aeronautics are one step closer to their vision of constructing a large aviation project at Castle Airport.

The owners of the flight school have identified 18 acres of land at Castle for the project and are in negotiations with the county to lease it. The proposed site is north of Castle Airport’s terminal building.

The lease agreement might be finalized by the end of this month or early January, said Bob Deklinski, director of airport development for Sierra Air Center Development.

“We’re presently in discussions concerning the lease with the county, and it’s tentatively scheduled for the Dec. 17 agenda,” Deklinski said. “It’s going to bring a lot of employment to the county and have a positive economic impact.”

Sierra Air Center Development is a company formed by the owners of the flight school in 2011, but Deklinski said they’ve been working on this project for 10 years.

If the plan moves forward, it could bring about 879 permanent jobs to Merced County.

The $30 million project would build a one-stop shop at Castle that would provide such services as corporate hangars, a fueling station and maintenance operations. The five-year project would also build a second international flight school.

Funding for the project comes from the EB-5 program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. It was passed by lawmakers in 1990 as a tool to help generate job growth.

Foreign investors put $500,000 into businesses at Castle that create or preserve at least 10 full-time jobs in exchange for two-year conditional visas, according to Deklinski.

Deklinski’s company is putting together a marketing team to reach investors in South Korea and China, some of whom have expressed interest in Merced County, he said.

Brian Johnson, Sierra’s vice president and chief flight instructor, said the school has formed relationships with companies in Asia, making it easier to acquire investors.

“I don’t really have a lot of concern about achieving the funding needed because we’ve been working with people in the Chinese market for so long,” Johnson said. “Because Sierra Academy has been working with Chinese government, institutions, airlines – we have all the right contacts to put this program in place.”

The aviation project fits into the master plan for the former air force base, which is to transform Castle’s airport into a hub to ship and receive goods worldwide.

“The fact is, by aircraft you’re only 10 more minutes from San Francisco to Castle,” Johnson said. “Castle has no congestion, no huge fees, and we have the infrastructure like the railroad and freeway to get products out to where they need to go.

“It’s the whole supply-and-demand thing,” he continued, “It has to come here somehow, so why not bring it to Merced County?”

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

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