Brent Jerner recalls sitting in class at Atwater High School in the early 1970s, hearing the piercing sounds of bombers and tankers flying overhead to Castle Air Force Base.
“They rattled the windows and you could not hear when they came over,” Jerner said. “The teachers would have to stop and you’d see the frustration on their faces.”
The 58-year-old Atwater resident now owns a small piece of the former air base after the Board of Supervisors last week approved the sale and transfer of 2.40 acres of land to Jerner. The cost of the land was $60,000, according to county documents.
“To think 30 years later, I could have the opportunity to own some property,” Jerner said. “Never in a million years did I think I would be out here. It’s like coming full circle.”
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Jerner said he’ll use the land to expand his 10-year-old company, APG Solar. The Atwater-based business provides installation and maintenance of solar panels for industrial, agricultural, commercial and residential customers.
Jerner plans to build a 5,000-square-foot warehouse on the land for storage, with groundbreaking expected in six to eight weeks. The company employs 17 people but may add to the workforce as the business grows, he said, especially during the construction process.
Selecting Castle as a second home for APG Solar was a no-brainer for Jerner.
“Other places that I looked at seemed to have a graffiti and crime problem, and Castle has a good crowd that is starting to build businesses,” he said. “The visibility is pretty good, and there’s less potential of crime.”
The transaction was surprisingly smooth, said Jerner, who expected a grinding bureaucratic process. His acquisition was the first under new legislation crafted by state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, to simplify land sales at Castle.
The bill got rid of the “cumbersome” public auction process that county officials said drove away potential buyers.
“In talking to a few others that attempted to do this in the past, I would say that Mark (Hendrickson, Merced County director of community and economic development,) and this new legislation made it easier,” Jerner said.
Hendrickson said eliminating the public auction saved a few months and provided a guarantee to a potential buyer.
“The entity that was buying in the past had no security in knowing they are the one that’s going to be able to purchase,” Hendrickson said. “It was very counter-intuitive to how the private sector thinks. This gave us the opportunity to have a good-faith negotiation and conversation with APG Solar.”
The expansion of a local company such as APG Solar represents economic development at its finest, Hendrickson added.
“This is a small business that wants to grow, needed space to grow and secured a site to do that,” he said. “It’s important to see small businesses like this grow. Small business and agriculture is the lifeblood of our community.”