The Ferrari Ranch Project, a 3 million square-foot development that includes retail stores, restaurants, a movie theater, hotel and medical center, could be a game changer for Merced County – and especially for Atwater.
It’s expected to bring nearly 7,500 jobs to a region starving for employment and an estimated $3 million a year in revenue. But the development, which would be built on county land between Buhach and Gurr roads off Highway 99, relies heavily on the completion of the Atwater-Merced Expressway Project.
Construction crews are making major progress on the first phase of the $336 million expressway, which replaces the Buhach Road interchange. The expressway eventually will connect to Castle Commerce Center and UC Merced.
The first phase of the project is scheduled for completion in early 2016.
“We’re on schedule. The weather has been pretty good, and we are about 55 percent complete,” said resident engineer Bryan Kroeger on Friday. “The next big step you’ll see is the opening of the new northbound off ramp.”
Work began on the four-phase project in October 2013. Merced County Association of Governments spokeswoman Stacie Dabbs said funding has been secured for only part of the project’s first phase – about $66 million. The remaining phases, which extend access from Highway 99 to Castle and UC Merced, are unfunded.
Completing the first phase with a new Buhach Road interchange would give Highway 99 drivers direct access to the proposed Ferrari Ranch site, making it vital to the development’s success.
“Without the new interchange, it would have been difficult to access,” said Dave Dolter, the project manager for Ferrari Ranch. “It provides access and visibility to the project, and people will be able to see it as they drive up and down (Highway) 99 and get off on the interchange.”
Dolter recently gave the Atwater City Council an update on the project, which has been in the works for six years. An environmental impact report is being completed – paid for by the landowners, the Ferrari family – before the plan goes to Atwater’s Community Development and Resources Commission.
The commission would make a recommendation to the City Council in early fall. The council would also need to adopt a resolution to annex about 330 acres of the land into the city. Tax revenue from the project would be split between Merced County and Atwater, with the county receiving a larger chunk.
Atwater Mayor Jim Price said revenue from Ferrari Ranch is much needed, but he’s more excited about the project’s plans for a new medical center near Atwater.
“We used to have three hospitals when I came to this area and now we’re down to one, and it’s not a trauma center,” Price said, adding that patients are often flown out of Merced County.
Dolter said he’s been in talks for five years with hospitals that have expressed interest in coming here. If the Ferrari Ranch Project comes to fruition, he said, it would attract other businesses to Atwater and the former Air Force base.
Connecting Highway 99 to Castle, the ultimate goal of the Awater-Merced Expressway Project, has always been a significant factor in revitalizing the former air base. County officials say improving transportation to and from Castle would help attract companies that transfer goods.
“If we want to build infrastructure for Castle to move the goods, we have to have that direct route,” said District 3 Supervisor Daron McDaniel, whose district covers Atwater. “When you talk to businesses, one of the first things they ask about is direct access to 99. It’s too much of a liability for trucks to hit red lights, drive by a residence or schools.”