RIVERBANK — The city is embarking on one of its biggest economic development projects: turning the former Army ammunition plant into a job-rich industrial park benefiting the entire Northern San Joaquin Valley.
The Army deactivated the 173-acre World War II-era plant Wednesday, and the city signed a no-cost lease to take possession of it today.
Mayor Virginia Madueño said the plant is critical to the Northern San Joaquin Valley's economic future, with Stanislaus County's unemployment rate at 19.1 percent and more job losses expected to hit in coming months.
The city wants to turn a factory that produced cartridges and casings for grenades and mortar shells into a home for new industries, replacing munitions jobs with green jobs.
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Regional economic development officials maintain that businesses have lost interest in relocating or building in the county because of a lack of industrial-zoned space and limited options for businesses within those zoned areas.
But the addition of the Riverbank complex to the county's inventory of industrial land could provide enough space and diversity of sites to meet the needs of businesses considering expanding here.
The city inherits a plant with nine civilian tenants that employ 175 workers, but the city's economic development director says 10 businesses — from a biofuels firm and a steel manufacturer to a car battery maker — have expressed interest in the plant.
Economic Development Director Tim Ogden says the plant could have 500 to 1,000 jobs within five years and as many as 1,700 when fully developed in 10 to 15 years.
NI Industries, which has operated the plant since 1951 and manufactured the casings and other components, expects to have the remaining equipment and materials moved by September.
At its height during the Vietnam War, NI had more than 2,000 employees working round-the-clock at the plant. NI now has 26 permanent workers and five temporary workers at the plant, according to the city.
Dennis Montgomery and John Blowers said they had nearly 75 years between them at the ammo plant when NI laid off them and nine other union workers Tuesday.
The two were among the 60 or so people who attended Wednesday's deactivation ceremony in the plant cafeteria.
Laid-off worker: Good wages
Blowers, a 55-year-old Escalon resident, said the average pay was $19 an hour in the latest union contract and a worker at that pay rate could make about $50,000 a year with overtime.
"It was a good-paying job," said Montgomery, a 61-year-old Empire resident. "We raised our families from here."
It's those kinds of wages the city hopes to duplicate.
One tenant is glad to see the city replace Army contractor NI Industries as the plant manager.
"The city wants to see growth and business opportunities, so that's why we are excited about it," said Danny Stephens, president of Environmental & Lubrication Solutions.
"Nothing against NI, they did their best to keep me happy. But their mission was to manage the facility and crank out parts for the Army, not economic development."
Investing in marketing
Riverbank is spending as much as $35,000 in grant money for a marketing and branding plan for the plant. The city has received about $1.5 million in grant money for the plant in the past three years and has applied for an additional $2.5 million grant.
City officials have spent nearly three years preparing for today and say they have done their due diligence to make sure the plant will be an economic boon for the city and environmentally safe for the workers and community.
But at Tuesday's City Council meeting, one resident voiced a concern that the city's budget for the plant won't be finished until the April 12 council meeting, after the city takes control of the plant.
"If it's another Del Rio, you know what they are going to say," said Scott McRitchie, referring to the 1940s downtown theater, which the city bought for $1.7 million. A structural analysis after the purchase deemed the building unsafe.
With the ammunition plant, the city is inheriting a complex that has been on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list since 1990 because of contaminated groundwater and other pollutants at the plant at Claus and Claribel roads.
The city says its lease requires the Army to be responsible for the cleanup of any contaminants, and Army officials agree.
The 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission included the ammunition plant in its list of military facilities to be closed.
The Army Joint Munitions Command is relocating its Riverbank operations to its Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2316.