State

West Park wins enough votes to keep project alive

West Park developer Gerry Kamilos mustered just enough votes Tuesday to continue with a downsized vision of bringing 17,000 jobs to a future industrial park near Crows Landing on Stanislaus County's West Side.

After a hearing stretching nearly 3½ hours, county Supervisors Dick Monteith, Bill O'Brien and Vito Chiesa approved giving Kamilos an extra 15 months for studies, including a feasibility analysis. Supervisors Jim DeMartini and Terry Withrow cast "no" votes, saying the county should call for new bids from other developers.

Kamilos hopes to give valley growers more Pacific Rim export opportunities by running local produce on short-haul trains to the Port of Oakland. Asian imports could come the other way, unloading onto trucks at an inland port on the former naval air base near Crows Landing.

Many in Tuesday's audience suggested Kamilos is tone deaf to West Side residents, while supporters pointed to $5 million already invested as proof of Kamilos' good faith.

"Today is not a vote for approval; it's for research to find out if this is going to fly," O'Brien said. "I'm willing to take 15 months because that is the fastest way to jobs. If we start over, it's just more delay."

Four years ago, West Park planned to sprawl across 4,800 acres. Kamilos recently scaled down to 2,800 acres, reduced anticipated train traffic and added a huge solar farm component to generate cash required for industrial infrastructure.

He also won commitments from the Turlock Irrigation District, which would sell power from solar panels, and from Union Pacific Railroad and the Port of Oakland. Additionally, he found new financing and signed a respected firm to market West Park.

Last-minute revisions may have gained Kamilos some support, but they came too late for meaningful analysis by county staff — and did nothing to win over many West Side residents and officeholders.

"We believe this is the wrong time to move forward with a speculative project based on too many uncertainties," said Patterson's Claude Delphia, vice president of opposition group WS-PACE.org.

Newman City Manager Michael Holland said, "What we're still seeing is smoke and mirrors hidden under a shroud of job creation." He and Newman Mayor Ed Katen said Kamilos did not reach out to them in four years — until Monday.

"We want to be taken seriously," said Patterson Councilwoman Annette Smith, charging that Kamilos had briefed Modesto and Turlock business leaders while ignoring West Side groups.

"I believe there are going to be other developers out there who are going to be interested," Katen said. "Let's start over with a new project."

Looking for potential

Several West Park supporters urged leaders to see West Park's potential to improve the county's economic fortune. For example, Sean Carroll, chairman of the Stanislaus Economic Development Alliance, said leaders must "not stand by the status quo, waiting for the situation to fix itself."

"Mr. Kamilos proposes a new plan to try to ease the panic of West Side residents and officials," said business owner Evone Cardenas. "I don't agree that this is a monstrosity or some kind of evil."

Sharon Silva, Turlock Chamber of Commerce executive director, said, "I have respect for the feelings of the West Side. But I'm also looking at the big picture."

And businessman Javier Rangel, calling West Park "visionary," said, "The county is more than just Newman."

In a testy exchange, DeMartini tried to chide Cecil Russell, chief executive officer of the Modesto Chamber of Commerce, saying, "You've been president of the Chamber of Commerce for three weeks and you already know what's best for the West Side?"

DeMartini, perhaps West Park's most vocal critic for four years, held little back Tuesday. Failing to cultivate local support "gives the impression to people who live over there that you don't really care what they think," he said.

Kamilos said he's prepared to begin outreach anew in Patterson and Newman, as soon as this week. He also blamed project delays on a lawsuit brought by Patterson.

Monteith came out nearly as strongly in favor of Kamilos as DeMartini is against him.

Withrow and Chiesa, both elected since Kamilos' initial 2007 split-vote victory, played it close to the vest until the very end.

Withrow succeeded Jeff Grover, West Park's strongest supporter, in a campaign laced with criticism for the project, but took a wait-and-see stance in recent months. A certified public account, Withrow said he put in "a ton of time" studying the plan's evolution, as he would for a client pursuing a business venture.

"The right decision is to end this relationship," he concluded.

O'Brien said Kamilos' competition four years ago, the Hillwood firm headed by Ross Perot Jr., has generated several troubling headlines suggesting financial distress.

With two votes for Kamilos and two votes against, Chiesa cast lukewarm support to break the tie. He said a smaller project footprint "is more aligned with my original expectation," and if it were possible to add 17,000 jobs today, the county's 18.2 percent unemployment rate would plunge to 11 percent.

However, it's clear Kamilos suffers a significant public relations challenge with his project's potential West Side neighbors, Chiesa said. He declared himself "not sold on the project" but willing to give it another 15 months.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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