Merced County has landed a deal with the Port of Los Angeles in a plan that leaders say could help revitalize the former Castle Air Base, not to mention bring thousands of jobs to the area in the coming decades.
The board of supervisors voted 4-0 on Tuesday to approve the effort to make more than 8 million square feet available for industrial development. Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza was absent.
Leaders have dubbed the space the Mid-California International Trade District in an agreement that partners Merced County with the largest port in North America, according to officials.
The vast majority of the crops grown in Merced are exported out of the region, making an inland port a natural fit in Merced County, according to Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of LA. The port handled more than 182 million metric tons of cargo in 2016.
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“It’s in (the) early days as recognized by the county board of supervisors, but we can’t wait to get to work,” he said. “We thought it was a good match to at least start the dialogue and see if we could enable the successive trade here in Merced County.”
Leaders have tried for years to diversify Merced County’s economy, which leans heavily on agricultural industries. The trade district could support 9,000 industrial and other related jobs in 15 to 20 years, and be a potential construction investment of $1 billion, according to the contract signed by both parties.
Castle is connected to Highway 99, and has a direct connection to transcontinental rail lines, as well as its runway, all considered assets for transporting goods.
A partnership with the Port of LA gives area leaders a chance to rub elbows with companies that may want to do business at Castle, and could help pull down state and federal funding for improvements in the area, according to Mark Hendrickson, the Merced County’s community and economic development director.
“We’re going to be interacting more effectively with a wider array of interests and industries,” he said. “We may on a daily basis interface with companies of a global magnitude.”
“We’re going to give our growers, ranchers and manufacturers throughout the San Joaquin Valley a better opportunity to do what they do best,” he said.
The partnership has begun speaking with elected officials in the state, according to Hendrickson.
A contingent of Merced County leaders visited the port earlier this month, including Supervisor Daron McDaniel, whose District 3 encompasses Castle.
“We need something to come to fruition. We have so many balls in the air,” he said. “I’m glad the Port of LA was able to step up. They see our vision.”
The former air base landed one of its largest tenants in 2014, which leaders have touted as another asset for reinventing Castle.
Google’s self-driving car company, called Waymo, already has a lease at the former Castle Air Base, which has an Atwater footprint of more than 91 acres, according to the lease, which goes through April 2020.
More than 75 other companies also work out of Castle.
Merced County CEO Jim Brown was quick Tuesday to temper expectations on the deal with the port, though he said he remains optimistic.
“It might work,” he said. “It might not work.”