ATWATER -- The sounds of hammers, of delivery truck tires rolling through a neighborhood, of lumber piled then heaved into place are sweet ones for some on this city's southeastern edge.
For people like Brad Miller, it's the sound of hope.
Four years ago, Miller, owner of Atwater's B&B Plumbing, employed 30 people mainly doing plumbing work on newly constructed homes. Today, B&B employs three people who largely do repairs. The company, however, just landed a contract to plumb four homes, part of a group of models which could lead to the construction of another 105 new houses.
The work began in late January after Sterling Communities, a Sacramento-based home builder, acquired 109 lots in Atwater's unfinished Claremont Reserve subdivision. The land was previously owned and partially developed by Pacific Union Homes before that company lost it to foreclosure.
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In taking on the Claremont project, Sterling made a dedication to hire local subcontractors, giving business to people like Miller.
The project is a ray of light in an otherwise very dark market. Unemployment in Atwater hovers at 20 percent with few signs of turning around. The construction and manufacturing industries in Merced County continue to struggle, losing another 1,000 jobs in December 2009, according to the latest labor statistics from California's Employment Development Department.
But because of Sterling's project, Miller hired back one employee to help with the work. If the development takes off, he says he could use a full-time, four-person crew on the Claremont site, more than doubling his existing staff.
"That was probably the happiest thing to come through here in a couple years. I was so happy to hear that guy was here buying lots and hiring locals," Miller said of Sterling's president Dave Romo. "A lot of times these guys come here from out of town with their own subs."
G&G Construction Co. of Atwater got the concrete contract for Claremont Reserve. In 2005, G&G had 715 employees. Today, it has 165, after rehiring 40 recently.
"The construction market virtually halted," explained Fred Castiglione, G&G's vice president. "We had to lay off 80 percent of our employees. After four years of this market correction, we are definitely excited to see this."
Kevin Stevens, vice president of Sterling, said the company wanted to energize the area with its project.
"Not only does it give people in the area interest in the project, some stake in the game if you will, it allows us to introduce ourselves to contractors in the area," he said. "We have a pretty deep bucket of contractors in the Sacramento area that would be willing to drive to Atwater, but we would rather stimulate the area. We aren't there to just build eight or 10 lots and get out."
City Manager Greg Wellman said any job-creating event is a good one, but it remains to be seen if the Claremont project is an isolated spark or the beginning of a wildfire. What makes the project work in a down market is Sterling was able to pick up finished, ready-to-build lots at a bargain price, he said. The streets are done, curbs and sidewalks are in. All the lots need are houses.
Stevens said his company and construction competitors are searching the state to purchase these types of buildable lots at low prices. The goal is to keep costs down and offer new affordable homes to buyers not happy with the existing housing stock. But only so many of those finished, buildable lots exist in any city.
"Because the amount of these deals is limited, I am concerned this could be a temporary phenomenon. But anything that adds jobs and gets people back to work is what we are trying to focus on," Wellman said.
Sterling is also building much smaller homes at much lower prices than were previously constructed in the area. Stevens said the homes will range from 1,600- to 2,800 square feet and start at $169,000. Homes in the area average 3,500 square feet, said Charlie Woods, Atwater's community development director.
Sterling predicts the models will be up and available for viewing by April 1, allowing new home buyers to take advantage of federal tax credits if they act quickly. The company will build the rest of Claremont Reserve based on demand.
Stevens acknowledged some residents voiced concerns over the project, questioning the proposed home sizes and the workmanship. But he said the company is committed to quality work.
"We build anywhere from 50 to 100 homes a year that any of us (Sterling's leaders) would live in personally," he said.
Woods questions how well Sterling's project might sell, pointing out that it will compete with a substantial inventory of discounted homes.
He notes, "Whatever the housing market will be will be a much closer reflection of the household incomes and the employment in this area."
Reporter Amy Starnes can be reached at (209)385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.