Could autonomous car testing be the rebirth of Castle Airport in Atwater?
September 03, 2018 12:22 PM
The Merced County employee overseeing the rebirth of the former Castle Air Force Base says the key lies in a strategic plan and not just filling up space.
The 1,900 some acres of Castle Airport and its surrounding area has grown in popularity, especially among companies looking to test autonomous vehicles, according to Mark Hendrickson, Merced County’s Community and Economic Development director.
A roughly 310-acre space is now being called the California AutoTech Testing and Development Center, a project that benefited from a $6.5 million injection of cash in this year’s state budget attributed to Assemblymember Adam Gray, D-Merced.
Merced County residents are likely aware that Google’s autonomous cars project, called Waymo, already rents space at Castle for a mock city used to test the vehicles. But the testing center has also been used by Samsung Electronics, Mercedes-Benz-maker Daimler AG and several others officials say they can’t discuss, according to officials.
About a year ago, the county inked a deal with the Port of Los Angeles, the largest port in North America, according to officials. Leaders have dubbed that space the Mid-California International Trade District.
About once a year county officials trot out their plans for Castle. Hendrickson said he often hears from frustrated residents who wonder why officials don’t fill up Castle with renters.
That was the plan 15 years ago, and it didn’t work, he said.
“It’d be real easy just to go out and fill space, but we don’t want to fill space. We want to do it with a purpose,” he said. “We got a lot of work to do. We’re at Step 2 of probably a thousand more steps.”
Castle and the county took a hit when AT&T closed its call center in 2014 but has since rebounded, according to Supervisor Daron McDaniel. About 400 people were laid off four years ago.
The former air base has more than 75 tenant businesses operating on site.
“There are more jobs at Castle today than there were when AT&T was there,” McDaniel said.
Along with the autonomous car project, the county and its corporate consultant GLDPartners look to make Castle a central hub for shipping. That dream has come closer to reality with plans to finish half of the “Merced loop” and free up funding for the Atwater-Merced Expressway.
The idea is to carve out a place for big rigs and trains transporting goods to stop in Merced County, according to Adam Wasserman, a managing partner of GLDPartners. The county is working on developing the relationships with the Port of LA, Oakland’s port and the BNSF Railroad.
Those kinds of connections have the potential for companies to truck in goods shipped into ports from Asia and vice versa, he said.
“This project will be a global project the day it’s opened,” he said. “It’s because we happen to be next to Silicon Valley. It’s our gift. Now it’s our job to turn it into unique value.”