Just outside the city of Merced, slightly east of Highway 99 is what used to be Castle Air Force Base. Like most areas of the Valley, it’s rural. Across the road from the center are train tracks, and you can hear the railroad crossing signals ding. This unincorporated area of Merced County will soon become an inland port.
Now, there isn’t any water around; we’re still in the Central Valley. It won’t be the kind of port that serves ships and boats. It will be a place for products to be built and materials consolidated, and then sent to the Port of Los Angeles.
Today, two-thirds of the nearly-2,000 acre base is still an airfield, but the rest of it is the Castle Commerce Center.
“This is a site that has roughly about 75 tenants, about a 100 different lease holds,” says Mark Hendrickson, directory of community and economic development for Merced County. “We generate about $2.9 million in lease revenue.”
Hendrickson says their goal is to redevelop Castle “to really turn it into a site where we can focus some solid attention on manufacturing. We a want to be a place where things are made because when things are made people are working.”
Back in October, Merced County’s Board of Supervisors developed an agreement with the Port of L.A. formalizing what Hendrickson calls a “hub and spokes” development. Merced will become a place of manufacturing and distribution, and use the nearby rail line and freeways to bring goods to L.A. to be shipped around the world. In kind, Castle may also become a place where the Port can send products for distribution.
Merced County isn’t the only Valley county building ties with the Port of L.A. Kern County recently got approval to expand their Foreign Trade Zone at TejonRanch. They also will move the zone’s affiliation to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Port of L.A. The expansion means all of the industrial areas of Tejon Ranch are now within their foreign trade zone. Companies operating there will receive a break on import duties and fees. Tejon Ranch has announced the expansion will bring jobs to Kern County.
Hendrickson says the same could happen in Merced, when it comes to job creation.
“Using today’s workforce numbers, about one out of every nine jobs would be right here at Castle in about twenty years.”
There is one drawback though. More shipping could mean more air pollution.
Dean Florez is a member of the California Air Resources Board and a former state senator from Kern County.
“The kinds of jobs and economic growth this brings are very large diesel trucks that are running a lot of things that make the air a lot worse,” says Florez. “You know, that balance is really important between jobs, growth, and air mitigation.”
One issue is that companies send their trucks full of goods to a port, and then the truck typically returns to the distribution center, empty. If that truck is coming to Merced’s inland port, that could mean hundreds of miles driven just to return the truck.
“Companies need to figure out how to send items to wherever, but that these cargo trucks not come back empty.”
Florez says the Air Resources Board should come up with ways to incentivize companies to share their trucks, and reduce the total number on the road. He also says this is really an opportunity for outside groups to develop something like an Uber for trucks, where they share cargo going to the port and returning to the Valley.
“I doubt it will be state government that comes up with that,” Florez says. “But I do think it will be some outside force that will come in and say, ‘This is the way, really trucks should be running in California, we have this sharing mechanism and it actually would work very, very well.’”
Florez says he plans to bring this up with CARB later this year.
In Merced County, Hendrickson says they plan to use trains to mitigate truck pollution.
“We see our using our rail connectivity on-site to get trucks off the road, improve air quality, open up shipping opportunities for folks not only through Merced County and really throughout the entire San Joaquin Valley to places all over the world,” says Hendrickson.
Finding the best shipping practices from an inland port will take time. And developing an inland port in the first place has been a long time coming.
Mike Dozier is the former Community and Economic Development Director for the city of Clovis. He says that these sorts of deals don’t just happen overnight.
“What happens is you have this vision, and it might be ten years before that vision starts to materialize,” says Dozier.
Dozier says it takes time for infrastructure to develop, and to convince groups to believe in the project’s potential.
“You know, you just build on it, you just have to have things ready for when the time is right.”
For Merced County, officials hope that time is now.