Plans for former Castle Air Force Base in Atwater revealed

ATWATER — When Merced County took over the former Castle Air Force Base in 2000, prospects for the site were considered bright.

Though the site hasn’t lived up to all expectations, county leaders say some recent efforts have increased interest at the former base, and a new document will only spur that attention.

The Merced County Board of Supervisors adopted a new master plan for the airport last week, and the text includes challenges and possibilities for the location.

The master plan will serve as a guide for the long-term development and operation of the airport over 20 years, according to county records. The 231-page document also will be aimed at securing funding and grants from the Federal Aviation Administration.

High fuel costs could be a drawback

The plan, which replaces a comparable document from 1996, calls for no further environmental impact review.

Highlights of the airport’s development possibilities include air cargo, commercial air carriers and general aviation, according to the master plan.

However, inflated fuel costs have diminished aviation growth and could be a drawback for any development unless the costs drop.

While the master plan details hopes for expansion, it also serves as a marketing tool, said Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County.

“It’s literally a snapshot in time,” he said. “It’s a view of what the future will look like based upon conditions at the time the plan was prepared.”

Castle’s position at the heart of California makes it prime real estate for air cargo opportunities, Hendrickson said. The airport’s runway is able to accommodate nearly any size aircraft on a regular basis – just short of the Airbus A380 – making the site an attractive possibility for developers.

“Our plan finds that we have the potential to serve a wide variety of aeronautical roles,” he said.

And one company is in the process of developing an air cargo business.

In August, the county supervisors unanimously approved a plan that would allow an applicant affiliated with the Sierra Academy of Aeronautics, one of the largest international flight training schools in the nation, to build an aviation business center at Castle.

Included in the plan is an air cargo facility, a corporate and private aircraft service center, a charter operation, modern hangars and a cold storage facility for produce.

Though the project faces a few hurdles before it becomes a reality, Hendrickson said it’s what Castle needs to jump-start the area. If it does come to fruition, it could bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue to the county.

Considering recent trends, industry experts think air cargo will experience solid growth through the year 2027 from three areas – the Pacific Rim, Mexico and Latin America.

Plan took five years to complete

The Castle Airport Master Plan calls for corporate and general aviation growth to expand north and the airport to become more cargo- oriented toward the south to allow for better access to the railroad and the future Atwater-Merced Expressway, Hendrickson said.

“Those are very, very key ingredients to seeing Castle find the type of success that we all envision,” he said, noting that the master plan will help tie the airport with the evolving region.

Supervisor Hub Walsh agreed, saying he expects the plan to help the site progress. “We’re hopeful that it will assist us in moving forward with business options and airport options that we know that we have there,” he said.

The plan, which took about five years to complete, cost $315,789 and involved several county departments and external consultants, Hendrickson said. An FAA grant for $300,000 helped pay for the report, in addition to $7,500 in state funds and $8,289 in county funds.

“This has been an extraordinary project,” he said. “This is a very significant step in the evolution of Castle’s history.”

County officials plan to forward the plan to the FAA in the coming days.