The announcement Friday that the AT&T call centers in Atwater will close, resulting in 397 lost jobs, was difficult news for the region. While most of those jobs were relatively low-paying, they offered good benefits and a steady paycheck for the past 17 years.
As stunning a blow as the job losses are to the area, it’s not the proverbial end of the world. For perspective, realize that Merced County’s labor force numbers 113,100 people (out of 260,000). Those 397 jobs represent less than a third of 1 percent of all jobs in the county. According to a report last year from the Workforce Investment Board, Merced County’s agriculture sector alone will have added 600 jobs from 2012 to 2015; the healthcare field 840. Overall, the job base is growing, despite this substantial stumble.
Unfortunately, that’s the extent of the good news. In seeking a silver lining, we’re left wondering when, if ever, the former Castle Air Force Base – with its runways, roads, hangars and enormous facilities – will ever deliver on the promise we thought it held when it was turned over to the public in 1995. Employers have come and gone, but AT&T was the only significant private job generator on the 1,900-acre base.
Yes, there’s the federal prison, but that’s not a growth industry (at least we hope not.) And we appreciate the museum, and Castle Family Health Centers, and the other small companies that have taken root. And no, we haven’t forgotten that Google is testing a driverless car at the base. Sad to say, it’s the perfect place – there’s no one around for the cars to run into.
AT&T’s decision to consolidate its workforce in other communities brings into sharp focus the failure to capitalize on a facility that was once believed to hold the key to growing jobs for the region. It’s been nearly 20 years, and Castle is still largely empty – empty buildings, empty promises. Soon, sadly enough, it’s getting even emptier.