Our View: AT&T loss hurts; Castle must land jobs

June 30, 2014 

There are no silver linings to Friday’s announcement that two AT&T call centers in Atwater will close, resulting in 397 lost jobs. Add the 91 lost jobs at Mi Pueblo Market, which also announced its shutdown last week, and 488 Merced County paychecks will be disappearing before school resumes.

This is going to hurt the city of Atwater, it will hurt Merced County and, most of all, it will hurt the families of the people losing those jobs. There will be uncertainty, self-doubt and belt-tightening. Some might lose their cars or be forced to delay paying bills; they’ll stop going to restaurants and make do with clothing they might otherwise have discarded or given away. Until they find new jobs, life will be uncertain, nerve-wracking and difficult.

We hope none face even more severe hardships before finding new jobs.

As stunning a blow as the loss of 488 jobs is to the area, it’s not the proverbial end of the world. Jobs are being created. For perspective, realize that Merced County’s labor force numbers 113,100 people (out of 260,000). Those 488 jobs represent less than half of 1 percent. According to a report last year from the Workforce Investment Board, the agriculture sector alone will have added 600 jobs in Merced County from 2012 to 2015; the health care field 840. Overall, the job base is growing, despite this substantial stumble.

Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of any good news. In trying to find any kind of silver lining here, we’re left wondering when, if ever, the former Castle Air Force Base – with its runways, roads, hangars and enormous facilities – will ever deliver on the promise we thought it held when it was turned over to the public in 1995. Employers have come and gone, but AT&T was the only significant job generator on the vast base.

Yes, there’s the federal prison, but that’s not exactly a growth industry (at least we hope not). And we appreciate the museum, and Castle Family Health Centers, and other small companies that have taken root. And no, we haven’t forgotten that Google is testing a driverless car at the base. Sad to say, it’s the perfect place – there’s no one around for the cars to run into.

AT&T’s decision to consolidate its work force in other communities – one in California, others elsewhere – brings into sharp focus the failure to capitalize on a facility that was once believed to be the key for growing jobs for the entire region. It’s been nearly 20 years, and Castle is still largely empty – empty buildings, empty promises.

There are no magic wands to create jobs, especially in our Valley. We’ve been patient, but we’re not alone in our desire to see results.

Mark Hendrickson, the director of Merced’s Department of Commerce, Aviation and Economic Development, once called Castle “1,912 acres of opportunity.” Unfortunately, last Friday’s announcement was news of opportunities lost.

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