Business

Future of Riverbank ammunition plant still up in the air

RIVERBANK -- Three years ago, the Army announced it would be shedding the 173-acre site at Claus and Claribel roads where it has made ammunition casings for 56 years.

The Army hopes to ship out by 2011, leaving the 10 businesses that lease land there wondering what will become of the site. Most local officials would like to see it transformed into a large business park, bringing more companies and jobs to the area.

But relinquishing control of the complex has been arduous and contentious for the Army; city; site management company, NI Industries Inc.; and the center's tenants. While some progress has been made, there's concern the process is moving too slowly and undermining development of the site.

Of the many ways the Army can transfer the property, Riverbank city officials think there are four likely options:

- Open auction

- Sell to the city or NI

- Gift to the city with the stipulation it be used to create jobs

- Give all or part of it to the city for a public project

The Army also could choose a combination of these options.

"First, the city has to give us the plans. Then we'll decide what happens with the property," said Mark Jones of the Base Realignment and Closure program. He is overseeing the transfer for the Army.

The city would have provided those plans months ago if it had received the information it requested from NI, City Manager Richard Holmer said.

City staff isn't getting answers to basic questions, said Economic Development Manager Debbie Olson. For example: Is there asbestos at the site? If so, how much and where?

City officials say they want to be thorough so they know what to plan for, especially given that a portion of the property is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.

Hot spots remain

In 1984, tests confirmed what some had long suspected: Toxins in a 2½-acre landfill at the site were seeping into an aquifer beneath it. Since then, the Army Corps of Engineers has been cleaning the contaminated water, but there still are hot spots. The Army is liable for the contamination and responsible for its cleanup.

Eventually, city staff got tired of waiting for all the documents it wanted and took what it could get, said Tim Ogden, the city's economic development and housing director. Ultimately, the city got about 75 percent of the paperwork it requested and less than half the time it wanted to inspect the site.

After 11 months of delays, city officials expect to release a tentative plan for reusing the site in mid-September.

"All we want is to get the reuse plan done so we know where we stand and can move forward," said Mayor Chris Crifasi.

Businesses leasing at the site say the tentative plan is a welcome sign of progress.

"Do I think it's successfully going to become a business park? Yes. How easy is it going to be on current tenants? That's the question," said Joe Moses, operations manager at Dayton Superior, which makes metal and concrete rebar at the site.

Gary De Laurentiis, the chief technology officer of eco2 Plastics, compares his decision to expand his plastics recycling business to rolling dice. While he has faith in the company's future, he's not sure about its future at the ammo plant.

Eco2 Plastics wants to grow from 110 employees to more than 200. Keeping the company at the site would help the city lure green businesses. Companies like eco2 attract related businesses to the sites where they are based, Olson said.

Slow progress frustrating

Frustrated with the slow progress on the site transfer, De Laurentiis has considered moving.

"They're harming businesses by not letting us move forward. Five of us want to expand and put more people to work," De Laurentiis said. "On Aug. 14, we have a $1 million piece of equipment coming in, and we need to know what's going to happen. We've been talking to NI for over a year about expanding our space."

Those unhappy with the transfer point to NI, which manages the site for the Army. Ammo plant business tenants say NI is unresponsive and unsupportive of their desire to extend their leases. The city blames NI for its own tardiness with the reuse plan, saying NI refused to grant access to some areas of the property and wouldn't provide information.

NI's general manager, Winifred Wu, could not be reached for comment, but she responded to the criticism during a May 13 public meeting about the transfer, blaming the Army for being unresponsive to city and businesses requests.

"The Army, not NI, is limiting access," she said before an audience that packed City Hall.

Those unhappy with NI believe the company wants the site for itself, but that's not in the plans, insisted Jones, the base realignment official.

"They can stop speculating. We're not going to work any deals with NI," he said.

Most agree, the site's future looks a lot like its present, a big industrial park on Claus Road just inside the city limit.

Riverbank officials hope to market what is an open field as premium space for environmentally friendly industries. The rest would be for general industrial use.Sites are highly prized

Industrial sites like Riverbank's are highly prized, said Bill Bassitt, the chief executive officer of Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance, which tries to bring businesses to the county and provide more jobs for residents.

"It's very difficult to attract new businesses to a community if you don't have a place to put them," Bassitt said.

Ownership will have to be established and stable to attract and retain businesses at the site, he added.

Given that Riverbank has lost more than 900 jobs this year and its unemployment rate reached 16.1 percent in June, city officials desperately want keep the current business tenants at the site and add more.

"Finally, we got wise and involved our congressional members," Olson said.

It has become one of the top priorities for Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, said the congressman's spokesman, Spencer Pederson. "Obviously, the goal is for the city to put it to good use."

Radanovich's district director, Darren Rose, hopes securing the businesses' leases will at least help secure some jobs in Riverbank.

"The last thing we need is to lose more jobs. We don't want those businesses to relocate," Rose said.

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at ehightower@modbee.com or 578-2382.

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