MERCED -- County officials have long said they plan to improve and develop Castle Airport. Their blueprint, 15 years after the air base closed, is still designed to bring thousands of jobs to the surrounding area.
But there may be too much blue sky in that blueprint.
First, some fixes.
Some improvements need to be made at Castle before the commercial tempo picks up, said Stan Thurston, president and co-owner of Gemini Flight Support at Castle Airport.
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Some of the hangars need work, including restoration and upgrades to the fire suppression systems and doors before the structures can be put to use, he said. The county wants the tenants to pay for the repairs, on top of standard rent.
Few companies are willing to pay for the necessary repairs, which is holding up potential development, Thurston said.
The lack of marketing has also hurt Castle's chances of attracting business, he added.
"There's an incredible amount of room for development," Thurston said. "It's a shame that it hasn't been a priority. The economic benefit would be staggering."
Mark Hendrickson, Merced County's director of commerce, aviation and economic development, agrees that there's enormous potential for growth at Castle, and said it has been a priority.
The last Environmental Impact Report for Castle was completed in 2007, and the airport Master Plan should be completed by the first quarter of next year, he said. The plan will provide a better idea of where growth and various developments will take place.
"The airport Master Plan, which has been a lengthy collaborative process with the (Federal Aviation Administration), is nearing completion," Hendrickson said. "Our consultants are literally putting the final touches on that document."
Hendrickson thinks the area is in a good position to attract development and could bring in "thousands of jobs."
"Castle, arguably, is the greatest economic development opportunity, not only in this county, but the region," Hendrickson said. "There are very few facilities like it anywhere in the western United States."
On the nonairport side of Castle, about 450 acres are also ready for development, he said. There are about 55 businesses at Castle that employ nearly 2,000 people.
"Castle is a place that has a number of very significant challenges," Hendrickson said. "But it also continues to be, I believe, the most significant, prime economic development opportunity that has the capability to reach global markets."
Hangars need repairs
The challenges include old hangars built when Castle was an Air Force base, he said. Many of the structures still lack modern requirements.
"When the Air Force left this facility, they left a fa- cility that's in great need of various repairs, structural and otherwise," Hendrickson said.
If those repairs come to fruition soon, it could help relieve the county's unemployment rate of 18.1 percent.
One developer estimated that 14,500 jobs could be created by 2027 between Castle and his project. About half of those jobs can be attributed to Castle's potential development.
The total cost of repairs at Castle could run into the millions, so county officials are partnering with the private sector to encourage them to rent the facilities and pay for repairs, Hendrickson said.
However, the county hasn't left everything up to the private sector.
"We've had about $20 million of investment from federal, state and local sources on the airport alone in the last five years," Hendrickson said. "Castle is positioned to do great things in the future."
The nearby city of Atwater hopes one day to tie up with the county and encourage the development of Castle, said Mayor Joan Faul.
The better Castle does economically, the better Atwater does.
"We'd love to have that developed," she said. "It would be huge."
Because of Castle's proximity to Atwater, city officials make strides to support the area, said City Manager Greg Wellman.
"The city provides waste- water services to Castle and other local communities at no additional cost," he said.
Hendrickson, who grew up around Castle, said it's loaded with opportunity, but has room to be polished. The runway at the airport can handle almost any size of aircraft in the world.