So, what's ahead for Crows Landing?
Perhaps the return of Hillwood, a Texas-based company -- owned by Ross Perot Jr. -- that would transform the West Side site into a truck-oriented distribution hub serving the valley and the Bay Area.
"We still have an interest in the project," Hillwood representa-tive John Magness said Friday. "We're ready to step in."
Earlier this year, Hillwood's proposal to develop Crows Landing was rejected by the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. Instead, the supervisors, on a 3-2 vote, approved the short-haul rail plan by developer Gerry Kamilos.
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Officials at the Port of Oakland and the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission opened the door Thursday for the possible return of Hillwood.
That's when they told The Bee their agencies had no interest in helping PCCP West Park, led by Kamilos, secure state funding for his short-haul rail plan.
That's significant because the proposed short-haul rail line's sole purpose would be to serve the port.
Given that development, should the county give Kamilos more time to try to work out a deal or simply cut ties with him?
Several county leaders say Kamilos deserves more time.
After all, they point out, the county is in the midst of an exclusive yearlong negotiation with West Park to develop the short-haul hub. That negotiation period doesn't end until April.
But if Kamilos can't pull it off, Magness said, Hillwood is more than ready to put its plan back on the county's table.
"Our plan is much more viable than what West Park presented," said Magness, a Hillwood senior vice president based in Irvine. "We believe in the long-term viability of the airport."
Microjets instead of short-haul railroad line
A key piece of the Hillwood plan for Crows Landing calls for using the airstrip as a home base for "very light jets," also known as microjets. That type of aircraft is smaller and less expensive than conventional business jets.
Hillwood representatives have said the air facility could attract businesses related to very light jets, such as maintenance, pilot training and even manufacturing.
Magness, however, said Friday that the primary focus, at least initially, would be development of the distribution hub that would link the valley and Bay Area.
Kamilos has pushed his idea forward for months under the assumption that port officials would bundle Crows Landing short-haul rail with a package of other needed Northern California rail improvements.
But now that the port has said, in essence, "thanks but no thanks," where does that leave Stanislaus County?
Still standing behind Kamilos, at least for the moment.
On Friday, county officials again said they would stay the course with West Park and Kamilos, who said he's not ready to give up.
"This project has such a compelling benefit," Kamilos said. "We're seeing tremendous support in Stanislaus County and throughout the valley. We see no inhibitors to keep this project from moving forward."
Eventually, said Kamilos, short-haul rail will make it easier to move goods between the valley and the port, while reducing air pollution and traffic congestion by removing trucks from roadways.
But almost from the outset, Kamilos' plan ran into opposition from West Side residents, especially those living in and around Patterson.
Some residents there continue to oppose the plan and, on Friday, asked supervisors to formally cut ties with Kamilos.
In an e-mail sent to The Bee, Patterson resident Claude Delphia called the Kamilos plan a "smoke and mirrors project."
Delphia said his group, "WS-PACE.org," (West Side-Patterson Alliance for Com- munity and Environment) believes that "supervisors should cancel the contract with Kamilos on the basis that the pro- posal is no longer what the county based its agreement to negotiate on."
He called the Hillwood plan, as it was presented to the Board of Supervisors last winter, "acceptable to us."
Kamilos states he's confident of success
Kamilos, meanwhile, vowed Friday to press ahead with his plan, saying he was looking forward to meeting with port managers later this week and "continuing our dialogue."
While Kamilos conceded significant challenges lie ahead, he said he's confident his project will succeed.
"With a big project like this, you will see issues come up; other issues will come up," Kamilos said, "and you can either put your head in the sand or take the questions, do the analysis, respond and move forward."
The $200 million project, if approved by Stanislaus County, would take an estimated 14 years to complete. Under the plan, at least one short-haul train a day between Crows Landing and the Port of Oakland would be running by 2011.
Kamilos and West Park are seeking $52 million in state bond money to make that happen.
"This is a Central Valley initiative," Kamilos said. "We're confident this is a good project and, ultimately, will receive state funding."
Question is premature, Grover says
Bill Bassitt, chief executive officer of the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance, was among those standing by Kamilos on Friday.
"With all due respect," Bassitt said, "what your paper reported (Friday) is not what I've been hearing from the port, and I've been involved in this process for 18 months."
Bassitt said the Kamilos plan presented the "best opportunity for this county to rise above mediocrity and become competitive in the world market."
Supervisor Jeff Grover, who also supports the short-haul rail plan, refused to speculate Friday on what might be done with the Crows Landing site should the Kamilos plan fail.
"Your question is really premature," Grover said. "This is a one-year process and we may need to extend it another month or two, until we know what the Legislature is going to do."
State leaders still are developing rules to distribute the billions in Proposition 1B transportation improvement money approved by voters last fall.
Kamilos said he believes the state money will come with or without the port's help.
But Hillwood's Magness said it's time for the county to move ahead without Kamilos.
"Now is the time," Magness said. "West Park hasn't fulfilled its obligation to the county. It's like when you know the ending of the movie -- why sit around and wait for it?"
Bee staff writer Michael G. Mooney can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2384.