The Nov. 25 print edition of The Business Journal 

Despite inflation and a limited housing market, Madera is still poised for a positive economic outlook for 2023.

With a slew of new projects waiting to come online, Madera County remains robust with strong growth in both the industrial and commercial sectors.

Darren Rose, the new executive director of the Madera County Economic Development Commission (EDC), said there is strong business interest in the county because of its location, workforce and business friendly environment.

Rose said that the industrial sector is seeing a lot of movement in the county, adding up to 1 million square feet of industrial space.

Cold storage company Amond World is currently building a 250,000-square-foot almond cold storage facility near the Madera Airport. Construction is expected to be completed by the second quarter of 2023.

Though they cannot be publicly named because of proprietary issues, a few local businesses in the county are preparing to expand, including a food manufacturer, a light-industrial construction fabrication company and an industrial component manufacturer and solutions provider.

Ready Roast Nut Company, an industrial supplier and processor of roasted tree nuts, is working with the city for its expansion as well, Rose said.

In August, ground broke for AutoZone’s Northern California distribution center, located in the Chowchilla Industrial Park near Highway 99. The $150 million project will create 300 full-time jobs.

The facility will cover 540,000 square feet and will be online by the end of 2023.

On the retail end, Rose said that there are inquiries from national brands, but with the national economic fluctuations, these companies cannot be disclosed.

“We have our eyes wide open — we are on the precipice of potential national recession, and retail tracks the economy very closely. We are excited, but we don’t know what the future holds from a national standpoint and what it would mean to locate a national company in the Madera market,” Rose said.

But the county does remain on the radar for national companies he said. The available workforce and land, as well as the transportation corridors, make the region attractive to national actors.

Madera will also be getting its first In N’ Out that will be going in the former space of the SugarPine Smokehouse restaurant near the Madera fairgrounds, which could open possibly by 2024, Rose said.

Rose said the ag industry in the county is expected to remain strong, but it is facing several challenges.

“The cost of fuel, supply chain issues with international markets are not as active and of course water,” Rose said. “Hopefully, the international markets begin to open and in turn help with commodity prices.”

Residential real estate is expected to remain active, but Rose said there is likely to be a slowdown because of the lack of available housing.

Madera City Manager Arnoldo Rodriguez said that the city has been fortunate this year with investment from private development, as well as grant funding for public projects.

For retail, Rodriguez said that Madera doesn’t have a single large vacant retail space, which is a challenge as the city is getting inquiries from national companies.

A Big Lots is going into the space of a former Save Mart, expected to open by early 2023.

Madera is expecting to break ground for its “Village D” master plan in the summer of 2023, consisting of 11,000 residential units and approximately two million square feet of commercial space near the Madera airport.

With the approval of Village D, and other subdivision housing projects, Rodriguez said the city is hopeful for a strong housing market.

“If interest rates come down a little bit, I think we will see a decent amount of development. With interest rates a little bit higher than average, people are skittish,” Rodriguez said. “While we can do a lot locally, some of it is dependent on national economic issues that we cannot control.”

With federal and state funding programs available, Rodriguez said the city has been aggressive in securing millions in grants for road repairs, new parks and park improvement, Fresno River conservation efforts and repairs for sidewalks.

The city also secured a $14 million grant to rehabilitate portions of Highway 145, which includes Yosemite Avenue, Downtown Madera’s main street. Construction for this will begin in 2025.

As well as attracting the attention of national companies, Madera County was able to attract national and international travelers as well.

Covid-19 restrictions in 2020, which carried into 2021, did lead to less visitors travelling to areas including Yosemite and Bass Lake, but the pent-demand led to a record number of visitors in 2022.

“The second quarter was strong — it beat all records,” said Rhonda Salisbury, CEO of the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau. “2019 was the highest we had in tourism numbers, and 2022 beat that and 2021. But then the fires hit in July.”

California wildfires burned in the busiest time of the season, Salisbury said, which did bring down the number of visitors to the parks and lakes.

Since Yosemite National Park will no long be requiring reservations to visit, Salisbury expects this will draw more visitors in 2023.

She added that the bureau is expecting around the same number of visitors in 2023, especially with a lot of international travel rates returning to normal. They expect the typical European travelers to return in 2023, as well as for agritourism and Central Valley wineries.

Even with higher gas prices across the state, Salisbury said that if people are committed to traveling, gas prices are not going to deter them from taking a trip to the area.

“There’s more options of places to travel,” Salisbury said. “For a while California just toured California. Thank goodness we have so much to see and do.”


Developers broke ground Tuesday on an almond cold storage facility in Madera open to all growers in hopes of alleviating price pressures on the nut. The owners hope the facility at 2842 N. Golden State Blvd. will be the first of many throughout the Central Valley. A project over seven years in the making, Amond World looks to open by the second quarter of 2023, said Robert Sullivan, managing partner for the company. The company name (“almond” without the “L”) links to a colloquialism of the word “almond” popular in the Central Valley — pronounced “am-end.”

The two 250,000-square-foot buildings are focused entirely on almonds. What separates this facility from others is that they will take almonds from any grower, according to Steve Sagouspe, managing partner along with Sullivan. The cold storage will allow almonds to be stored up to two years, meaning during times of plenty, growers can keep the nut in storage rather than bringing it to market. Each building will be able to store 50 million pounds of finished product. “I think farmers and processors are going to really enjoy the opportunity of being able to time their sale rather than having to get rid of it,” Sullivan said. With shipping disrupted as it is now, growers are having to sit on massive amounts of product, creating gluts in the market. Almonds this year have traded below $2 a pound, down from highs of $5 a pound a few years ago. Having access to cold storage means longer shelf life and more stable markets, Sagouspe said.

This also means the almonds don’t need to be fumigated for sanitary purposes. They will also be able to store certified organic almonds. Sullivan and Sagouspe contracted with Madera’s Span Development to build their ground-up development at the Madera Airport Industrial Park. Sullivan hopes to have the building up in the first half of 2023. The Amond World model allows for more growth in the Valley — anywhere almond grows, he added. They are currently scouting additional real estate near Chowchilla and Pixley.

The partnership with Span Development allows them to build several at a time. Part of the seven-year delay came with finding investors, said Sagouspe. They had courted suitors from other parts of the world, but they weren’t a good fit. They eventually found Adam Hayner from Los Angeles-based Origo Investments. The fit was good, he said. Coming from Washington originally and being involved in apple farming, Hayner knew about the importance of cold storage, Sagouspe said. Hayner said supporting the Central Valley is integral to supporting the food chain. The building would also be built with sustainable materials and powered by renewable energy, including solar panels and solar batteries. Sullivan hopes within five years to have 5 million square feet of cold storage online. Sullivan and Sagouspe were both previously real estate brokers with backgrounds in ag, but said Amond World is their new full-time job.

Plans advance for Mojave Inland Port, first of its kind in California

MOJAVE, Calif. — Kern County, Calif., supervisors have approved a proclamation in support of the Mojave Inland Port, a planned 410-acre facility intended to receive and distribute up to 3 million containers per year from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. “The Mojave Inland Port is a fully permitted industrial site that will provide a solution for California goods movement at the ports,” Lorelei Oviatt, Kern County director of planning, said in a press release from holding company Pioneer Partners, which is spearheading the project. “This one-of-a-kind project will help unsnarl the congestion in the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach; it will help the national economy by reducing pressure on the supply chain; it will help the local economy through job creation,” said Pioneer Partners Chairman Richard Kellogg. “Goods will get to businesses and consumers faster and more efficiently. We can’t wait to get started.”

Plans call for groundbreaking in 2023 with the facility beginning operation in 2024. Pioneer Partners says it will work with Kern County officials to secure the necessary building permits. Developer Greenbriar Capital says in a press release that the project will the California’s first inland dry-land port and the largest in the U.S. and could support as many as 3,000 new jobs while generating an annual economic impact exceeding $500 million. “Inland ports are a critical component to the future balance of our supply chain. They can provide flexibility and efficiency, all while relieving traffic congestion at critical choke points,” said Trelynd Bradley, an official at the California Governor’s Office of Business & Economic Development. “We appreciate the work that Pioneer’s Mojave Inland Port proposal has done to help find new solutions to address our supply chain challenges.”

The site is about 90 miles from the San Pedro Bay location of the two ports. Containers will arrive at the site astride Union Pacific’s main line via shuttle trains and can be distributed via state highways 15 and 58. There is also a 12,500-foot, heavy-lift runaway at the adjacent to the Mojave Air & Space Port.

State Explores Commercial Drone Deliveries via Shared Airways

In a first-of-its-kind study in North America, Michigan is researching the feasibility of using drones for commercial delivery beyond visual line of sight or what operators can see, with a plan to seek approval for such flights from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The state’s Transportation Department tapped Airspace Link, a provider of data, software and managed services associated with drone flight, to analyze the air traffic and ground infrastructure that would enable flights in shared air mobility corridors. The company will also study the economic and community impacts of BVLOS operations.

“The big thing that we need to do is be able to make the safety case, have the infrastructure ready, to be able to go to the FAA,” said Charlie Tyson, technology activation manager at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a partner in the effort. “That’s a big task.”

Airspace Link’s AirHub Insights software, data and services will contribute to the risk analysis that the state will use to seek FAA approval. The solution analyzes more than 50 datasets—ncluding Esri GIS data and information from federal, state, local governments and third parties — to provide actionable information on safety, economic impact and drone reach, said Lisa Peterson, vice president of business development at Airspace Link.

“This Michigan DOT study is all about what will it take to enable these drones to go 20, 30, 40 miles, which they are capable of,” Peterson said. “But because of the current [FAA] rules and regulations and the need to have the visual observation, you can’t do it. Think of this as a digital visual observer that we’re putting together – the ground infrastructure that’s going to help ensure that these drones don’t conflict with manned aviation, that we are sensing where they are at all times, and if there is an event that happens … there’s a safe landing spot along these areas that has been approved for beyond visual line of sight.”

Since January, the study has looked at how drone BVLOS operations could safely happen in three geographic areas. One is southeast Michigan, particularly the highly populated Detroit area.

“We are trying to look at how we can layer highways in the sky, if you will, above the ground-based autonomous vehicle corridor being developed by Cavnue between Detroit and Ann Arbor,” Tyson said. The corridor project started in 2020 to test the viability of a 40-mile driverless vehicle roadway.

The BVLOS study supports the state’s sustainability goals. “We think that with electric, small aircraft it can actually help reduce carbon emissions of moving goods on ground-based trucks and freight,” he said. “It’s important for us to think about how these can positively impact communities and not cause noise pollution or a hindrance to communities.”

The second study area is international deliveries across the state’s border with Ontario, Canada, and the third targets rural and tribal regions in the northwest where residents might struggle to access vital goods, especially in the winter.

“The outcome of this study would be a report outlining the air corridors in those spaces and what infrastructure would be needed to establish them … and what the economic benefit would be,” said Corey Whittington, director of business development at Airspace Link.

The data will also inform route plans, Peterson added. “The state of Michigan is also going to learn by working side-by-side with us as we turn out some initial drone operations,” she said. For instance, last month, the company worked with MissionGO, a drone developer, to determine the best way to deliver medical supplies using a mile-long stretch of railroad tracks between two sites belonging to a local health system.

Airspace Link is an authorized provider of the Low Altitude Authorization Notification Capability (LLANC), a collaboration between FAA and industry that supports the integration of unmanned aerial systems into the airspace. LAANC, pronounced “Lance,” gives drone pilots access to controlled airspace at or below 400 feet and awareness of where they can fly. It also provides air traffic professionals with visibility into where and when drones are operating.

“We basically digitize the skies with our mapping capabilities, and then we also are able to authorize flights in controlled airspace,” Peterson said. “What we’re doing in our system is providing the rules and regulations to unmanned aircraft system pilots—aka drone pilots—on how to navigate the airspace safely and compliantly. Just like on the roads you have street center lines and speed limits and rules you have to follow as a driver, there are rules that drone operators have to follow in the airspace.”

The research is already showing promise. “We have learned that this is very attractive and very interesting for industry,” Tyson said. “We’ve seen a significant influx of tech companies—small and large startups, even large logistics providers [and] some of the big names—reaching out to us and [the Michigan Aeronautics Commission (MAC)] about how they would leverage these corridors and how they can get involved and what type of use cases they would have.”

Another promising area is the use of the state’s many regional airports for drone operations— “looking at how takeoff and landing locations and logistics hubs for drones can be aligned with airports or at airports,” Tyson said. Michigan’s aviation system already contributes more than $22 billion to the state economy each year, according to MDEC.

In addition to MAC and MDEC, MDOT is working with the Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification and the Ontario Vehicle Innovation Network. “This model and these corridors that are being developed, we hope to be able to then scale to other parts throughout Michigan,” Tyson said.

Patriot Rail to establish rail district in central California

Patriot Rail CEO John E. Fenton is hoping the creation of a new rail district in central California will be a boon not only for his company but also for agricultural producers in the region. Patriot Rail is part of a public-private partnership with local leaders to develop a rail district for central California. Patriot Rail will lease approximately 6,500 feet of track and related property to Merced County, and the company will invest $1.2 million to increase rail capacity there at the Castle Commerce Center. The lease’s term spans 20 years, but it could be renewed in subsequent years. Patriot Rail interchanges with BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B), meaning that agricultural producers will have expanded access to the West Coast ports as well to the domestic market. When local economic developers were pursuing options for a rail district, BNSF brought Patriot Rail to the table, according to Fenton. “We think this is a great opportunity for the state of California to make their farmers even that much more competitive around the world,” Fenton told FreightWaves.

Patriot Rail’s involvement in the rail district was in response to an area shipper’s needs. Tomato products producer Morning Star and its warehousing provider needed to expand their packaging capabilities, and so they were looking for an area to grow, according to Fenton. Locations such as Modesto, Stockton and Sacramento were already at capacity, so expanding production in the San Joaquin Valley was the next natural location, Fenton said. “The San Joaquin Valley is one of the agricultural centers of the world. And there’s a lot of tomatoes that come out of that region,” Fenton said. Fenton hopes to have Patriot Rail’s assets ready by May 1, which is when the pack season starts for Morning Star. The pack season involves 100 days of operations running 24/7. In that time, Morning Star produces about 9,000 cans of tomatoes per minute, Fenton said.

According to the California Tomato Growers Association, tomato producers in the state processed 11.3 million tons of tomatoes in 2020, and that production has a value worth $887 million. Other agricultural products in the region include almonds, wine and cheese. According to the Almond Board of California, the counties of Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin in central California produced 921 million pounds of almonds during the 2020-2021 crop year, representing nearly 30% of overall California almond production.

Although Patriot Rail and others aren’t sure yet how many carloads might come out of the rail district, the rail district provides shippers with the opportunity to build warehouses and expand production. “We are meeting with all the agricultural shippers in the region. We want them to have a say in what kind of services they’re looking for. … The demand is really high, and we’re going to start to piece that together. The first thing is to really understand what the demand will be so we can build the facility and plan the facility in the right way,’ Fenton said. “We’re still scoping that [demand] but over time, we think it will become a very large rail district in the state of California.”

The agreement with Merced County was executed with Patriot Rail subsidiary Foster Townsend Rail Logistics. “Castle Commerce Center has enormous potential and is quickly becoming a site of regional, national and international significance,” Merced County Supervisor Daron McDaniel said in a release last week. McDaniel’s district includes Castle. “Patriot is a major part of our vision for Castle, and we’re looking forward to working with the partners they bring to help expand this growth and spur future job creation.”


Amazon Picks Central Valley Town for First Package Deliveries by Drone

Retailing giant Amazon announced Monday it picked a small town in the Central Valley near Stockton to be the first location for public drone deliveries. Deliveries to Lockeford, a town of 3,500 on State Route 88, would begin later this year. This would be the first time Amazon makes drone deliveries to the American public, and it follows several pilot projects by companies such as Walmart, United Parcel Service and FedEx. The online retailer said it was working with Federal Aviation Administration and local officials to secure permits. The drones will have the capability to fly beyond-line-of-sight and will be programmed to drop parcels in the backyards of customers. “Lockeford residents will play an important role in defining the future,” Amazon said. “Their feedback about Prime Air, with drones delivering packages in their backyards, will help us create a service that will safely scale to meet the needs of customers everywhere.” The company predicted that drone delivery “could one day become just as common as seeing an Amazon delivery van pull up outside your house.” Amazon made its first customer delivery by drone in the United Kingdom in 2016 and had touted its plans for drone delivery for years before that.

Owner of Save Mart, FoodMaxx brands sells to L.A. private equity firm

A Los Angeles private equity firm announced Monday it has acquired Central Valley grocery store owner The Save Mart Cos. Modesto-based Save Mart has about 200 stores in California and northern Nevada, including the Lucky California and FoodMaxx brands. It also operates a refrigerated transport company and is co-owner of a distribution center in Lathrop and a dairy processing plant in Turlock. Terms of Save Mart’s purchase by Kingswood Capital Management LP were not disclosed.

The Save Mart Cos. operates Save Mart and FoodMaxx stores in Kern County. It said in a news release the transaction will be transparent to customers and its 14,000 employees. In January 2021, Kingswood purchased Alameda-based Cost Plus World Market. It also owns a marine services business. “At Kingswood, our goal is to make good businesses even better, and The Save Mart Companies presents us with a great opportunity to do so,” Alex Wolf, Kingswood’s founder and managing partner, said in the same release. “Their 70 years of history in the Central Valley provides a strong foundation for future profitable growth, and we look forward to working with Chris and the team to position these iconic grocery brands for the future.”

Rail expansion at Castle expected to reduce supply chain issues, Merced County leaders say

At a time of shipping bottlenecks and supply chain shortages, Merced County leaders say expanded rail service at Castle Commerce Center will put Merced County in an advantageous economic position. The Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a deal with Patriot Rail, a short line and regional freight railroad operator, which will lease 6,500 feet of track and related property and pay $1.2 million to increase rail capacity fluidity of shippers in the Castle rail district, according to a county news release. “This agreement is the culmination of years of market analysis and strategic planning,” said Lloyd Pereira, Board of Supervisors chairman, in the release. “Coupled with the autonomous vehicle testing happening at Castle, this is an exciting time for Merced County. We’re on the front end of job creation and economic development.”

The lease is part of the creation of a new rail district, according to county officials, and the lease to Patriot Rail is expected to make Merced County an even more prominent hub for freight rail movement. The deal enhances the ability of agricultural producers, manufacturers, and other businesses in the San Joaquin Valley to ship and receive products via the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad mainline. The BNSF mainline runs adjacent to the rail district, which is located on the southeast corner of the Castle Commerce Center.

A rail spur connects Castle to the BNSF lines and Patriot Rail will build more infrastructure to expand rail service there, the release said. The 20-year lease between Patriot Rail and Merced County has the potential for continued renewals at the discretion of company and county officials, the press release went on to say, and Patriot Rail will maintain the track. “Patriot Rail is pleased to advance and help drive Merced County’s vision of economic growth,” said John E. Fenton, CEO of Patriot Rail. “We are committed to providing service and safety excellence as a premier rail solutions provider, and to partnering with Merced County customers to ensure exciting new competitive options for shipments by rail to build business and grow jobs.” The expansion of rail service at Castle has not gone unnoticed in other economic hubs across the state. Officials at some of the busiest ports in the country herald this development as an opportunity not just for Merced County, but industry partners across the shipping industry. “This agreement will help make Central California a focal point to accelerate goods movement across our state and nation,” said Gene Seroka, executive director at the Port of Los Angeles.

Amazon to open ‘last mile’ warehouse in Fresno, bringing 550 jobs. Here’s what it will do

Online retail giant Amazon is expanding its sizable footprint in Fresno with plans to open a “last mile” warehouse in the eastern part of the city south of Fresno Yosemite International Airport. According to development plans and permit applications filed last year with the city, Seefried Industrial Properties is building a 183,000-square-foot warehouse that will serve as a delivery station – one final stop for packages before they are delivered to customers. The facility is reportedly expected to open in the second half of this year and will operate around the clock with as many as 550 employees.

The site covers about 43 acres at the southwest corner of Olive and Clovis avenues, near the former Sunnyside Drive-In movie theater. The old drive-in property is bounded on the south and west by the Amazon property, according to Fresno zoning maps. HIghway 180 runs along the south side of the Amazon site. Fresno City Councilmember Tyler Maxwell, whose Council District 4 included the site until newly redrawn districts took effect this year, confirmed to The Bee on Wednesday that the project was indeed being built for Amazon. From the time that the first development applications were filed almost a year ago, Maxwell said the nature of the project was kept “pretty hush hush” by both the developer and the city manager’s office.

“Trying to find out more information had been difficult,“ Maxwell said. “My staff had to dig to find out who was behind the fictitious business name, and of course it was Amazon.” In both development applications and in various building permit documents, the project has been described as a “warehouse and distribution facility” or “delivery station” amounting to about 161,000 square feet of warehouse space and about 22,000 square feet of offices and support space. “Delivery stations power the last mile of the tenant’s order fulfillment process and help speed up delivery for customers,” Seefried Industrial representatives stated in a permit application last year.

The developer noted that the site will have parking for more than 1,600 cars and vans, in addition to 12 trailer parking spaces. The building itself will include 17 loading-dock doors. Amazon opened a massive, 855,000-square-foot fulfillment center at the southern edge of Fresno in mid-2018, eventually ramping up its hiring to about 2,500 workers by last year. Since opening, construction has commenced on a nearby second large fulfillment center for Amazon, at 470,000 square feet, after the city of Fresno reached a settlement with residents who objected to the growing number of distribution centers in their south Fresno neighborhood. The company is also stepping up its partnerships with a cadre of “last mile” delivery partners – companies that contract with Amazon for delivery of packages to customers’ doors. The last-mile warehouses serve as an intermediate stop for packages between larger fulfillment centers and customers, providing a final sorting stop where drivers collect packages for delivery.


Car parts retailer AutoZone is the latest company to secure a distribution home in the Central Valley. The Tennessee-based company with more than 6,000 stores in the U.S. — 640 in California — announced Thursday afternoon its plans to build a $150 million distribution center in the Madera County town of Chowchilla. Construction would begin this coming summer with a targeted opening in 2024.

The distribution center would create at least 280 news jobs, according to an Auto Zone news release. It would occupy in phases 750,000 square feet of warehouse space in the Chowchilla Industrial Park with close access to Highway 99. Referred to as “Project Sunset” by city planners, the distribution center has been about a year and a half in the making, said Bobby Kahn, executive director of the Madera County Economic Development Commission.

The Auto Zone announcement was actually first made at the State of the County Luncheon in Madera hosted by the EDC Thursday afternoon. “There’s no better way to close an economic development event than with a major project announcement,” Kahn said. “The timing was remarkable.”