County set to be ‘center of commerce’

Central Valley Business Journal, December 2011

By KEITH MICHAUD/Business Journal Editor

San Joaquin County is poised to become the “center of commerce” in Northern California.

At least, that’s if the San Joaquin Partnership has anything to say about it.

Mike Ammann, CEO and president of the private nonprofit economic development corporation that works to draw and keep businesses in San Joaquin County and the rest of the Central Valley, is adamant that the region already has a fantastic start on fostering growth well into the future. The region has two railroads – Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe– with intermodal service, an under-utilized airport, direct access to Interstate 5 and state Highway 99, with access to east-west routes, and ample and versatile commercial mega-sites. Add the fact that the Port of Stockton is merging onto the “Marine Highway,” which will greatly increase activity there, and the region is in a prime position, said Ammann.

“I really think (the Port of Stockton expansion of service) is going to reposition us – with a full-service port – to be the center of commerce and logistics for Northern California,” said Ammann.

He said the work begun before he arrived about six months ago after Mike Locke left the agency to join the city of Stockton as a deputy city manager has paid off nicely. Five major arrivals in the past few months mean jobs for the region:

Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Markets acquired a 750,000-square-foot facility to be used as a distribution center. It will employ about 700 people with operations expected to begin in 2012. Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Markets are growing into Northern California. The stores offer fresh produce, prepared meals, and other grocery items with self-serve checkout.

The Veterans Affairs Department is bringing to the area a 165,000-square-foot nursing home and a 153,000-square-foot outpatient clinic north of San Joaquin General Hospital. Together the VA facilities will employ 350 people and open sometime in 2015 or 2016. The VA utilizes more than 800 community-based outpatient clinics across the country to provide health and wellness visits and other outpatient services to veterans, according to its website. The VA also has more than 135 Community Living Centers, or nursing homes, to care for veterans with chronic stable conditions such as dementia, those requiring rehabilitation, or those nearing the end of their lives, according to the website.

ACX Pacific Northwest will be in a 90,000-square-foot facility and will employ 50 people in an operation to process, compact and ship raw agricultural products. It will utilize the Marine Highway via shipping barges between Stockton and the Port of Oakland.

ECS Refining is an electronics recycler serving the West and it will be in a 262,000-square-foot facility and employ 120 people. ECS moved into a former metal-stamping plant that closed down when the Nummi auto plant was shuttered in 2010. ECS intends for the facility to be the primary receiving and processing plant for the country’s largest electronics recycling operation, according to the ECS website. The company expects eventually to process 25 million pounds of e-waste each month.

DTE Energy Services will operate a 45 megawatt biomass power plant at the Port of Stockton. The former coal-burning plant will be converted to a cleaner wood burning operation that will employ 50 people at first and 200 once the facility begins operation in 2013.

Ammann said there are about 100 or so more businesses “in the pipeline” to come to the region. He said developing relationships across the region, state and country helps to build the type of economic diversity that can help a region ride out tumultuous economic times.

“We don’t want to focus on just one industry,” said Ammann. “Diversity is what we’re all about. We don’t want to be a monolith like Detroit with the auto industry.”

And if a business isn’t quite the right fit for San Joaquin County, then there might be somewhere else in California it would work.

“If it doesn’t make sense in our region,” said Shelley Burcham, San Joaquin Partnership vice president of client services, “then we want to keep the business in California.”

It also takes a bit of persistence.

“I always say,” said Ammann, “follow up until they die, buy or locate.”

Ammann said the work done by Locke, Burcham and the rest of the Partnership staff, along with his familiarity with the organization from working in economic development up and down the Central Valley, has made for a smooth transition.

“Obviously, we have a great foundation of staff and members,” said Ammann. “We had a full program in place and I just jump onboard and helped complete it. … It’s a team kind of way we’ve put things together. It’s sort of like jumping on the train that’s already left the station.”

Moving forward, Ammann sees commerce in San Joaquin County as broken up into three buckets. The agriculture-food-beverage bucket is in great shape, he said, as is the logistical bucket that includes transportation, available mega-site commercial sites, and more.

Next, the high-technology bucket must be cultivated, said Ammann.

“We have a workforce that the Silicone Valley likes,” said Ammann, adding that 50,000 commuters go to the East Bay every day and that about 20 percent of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s staff comes from San Joaquin County.

Instead of exporting workers to high-tech jobs in the Bay Area, Ammann wants to lure tech business to San Joaquin County and keep the jobs here.

“We have to work that some more to develop that (high-tech) bucket,” said Ammann.

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