Google signs second lease with Merced County

05/01/2014 7:32 PM

05/02/2014 10:58 AM

Technology giant Google is getting ready to expand its footprint in Merced County, entering into a second lease agreement at Castle Airport, officials confirmed Thursday.

Google is leasing a hangar for testing related to Project Loon, cutting-edge balloon technology that provides Internet service to rural areas worldwide.

“I can confirm that we’re leasing the space for continued Loon testing,” said Katelin Jabbari, Google spokeswoman, adding that the company is happy to be working in the community.

Google leased 60 acres of land at Castle in January to develop the company’s self-driving car program. Since Google was already in Merced County, company representatives said it “made sense” to also test the balloon technology in Merced.

Representatives said the flight tests are “sporadic and ongoing,” so it’s unclear when the high-altitude balloons will be flown. The balloons will be launched from Merced County to other parts of California to “improve upon various aspects of the technology.”

Google first unveiled the balloon-powered Internet program to the public last June.

Project Loon balloons are solar-powered and designed to travel into the stratosphere and be controlled on the ground by Google engineers using National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. The signal goes from balloon to balloon, creating an aerial Wi-Fi network.

Although the concept is to use the giant balloons to bring Internet service to people in remote areas, the balloons could also be used to provide service in times of disaster if traditional providers were disrupted.

Central Valley residents were invited for a test of Project Loon last August, according to a post on Project Loon’s Google Plus page. Google was looking for residents of Madera, Chowchilla, Mariposa, Merced and Turlock willing to have a Project Loon antenna installed on their homes or small businesses.

Google’s new month-to-month lease agreement with the county began Thursday, with the Mountain View-based company paying $2,884.49 per month for the hangar. The contract states the space will be used for “high-altitude research development testing and equipment storage,” according to county documents.

It’s estimated that a team of eight to 10 Google testers will be on site, though Jabbari said she could not comment on how many jobs could be added.

Mark Hendrickson, Merced County director of community and economic development, said the county is pleased to be working again with Google, which he described as a team of intellectual and forward-thinking people.

“I think the second lease with Google illustrates the fact that the first experience was good,” Hendrickson said. “We as the county just appreciate working with their team of professionals, and we continue to believe their presence at Castle has the potential to spur future economic activities.”

Hendrickson said the contract shows that Merced County is capable of handling and hosting businesses such as Google – opening the door for other companies and job-creating opportunities.

County officials are hopeful the relationship between Merced County and Google continues to blossom.

“We’ve demonstrated that we are very motivated to work with Google to make good things happen,” Hendrickson said. “And should they have other ideas down the road where they would need our help, we would be there for them.”

Google’s first lease with Merced County for 60 acres of land was about $456,000 for two years, according to county documents. Hendrickson said a fence has been placed around the site and it’s in the process of being prepped.

Merced Mayor Stan Thurston, who is also co-president of Gemini Flight Support, the airport’s fixed-base operator, said he knew a balloon project was in the works when he saw tanks of helium being moved to Castle months ago.

Thurston said he’s happy to see the hangar leased by Google – Hangar 1509 – being revitalized and put to good use. The space was previously used to store equipment for the Sheriff’s Department. Prior to the Air Force base’s closure in the ’90s, it was used to provide fuel to bombers and tankers.

Thurston said since the hangar didn’t have a fire suppression system, which costs about $500,000, it was a dead building.

“It’s never been used for aviation since Castle closed, because the fire marshal would not let aircraft in there because the fire suppression system didn’t work,” Thurston said. “My understanding is Google is going to renew the fire suppression system so it’s active and up-to-date.”

Thurston agreed that Google’s presence could lead to more economic activity at the former military base.

“We still have people saying, ‘Oh, Castle opened?’ ” the mayor said, “so it doesn’t hurt to get our name around that we’re here, and we’re open to business.”

Officials are also hoping Google can build a relationship with UC Merced to allow students to take part in research opportunities. County officials said they received a handful of emails from businesses and UC Merced officials about potential opportunities after Google signed its first lease.

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