Merced County finds top operator for auto testing at Castle
133 new jobs, investment expected over next five years
‘We have said from the outset that we wanted to do something creative, something visionary, something designed by industry for industry. We had a goal of developing something with statewide importance. Upon your approval today, I believe you have accomplished each of these goals.’
Merced County’s economic development director
At a time when we all need some good news …
The Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously agreed to contract and partner with a leading national transportation research and development organization to operate the AutoTech Testing Center at Castle.
Local leaders and industry representatives said the move would create jobs, increase regional investment, and place what is otherwise known as the Castle Airport and Commerce Center at the forefront of vehicle technology development and testing in all of California.
Transportation Research Center Inc. (TRC Inc.) of East Liberty, Ohio, signed a 10-year agreement with the county to manage the 225-acre testing complex at Castle that’s expected to create a one-stop facility for manufacturers who are developing new technologies in the fields of autonomous vehicles, onboard sensors, computer connectivity, tires, breaks, and passenger safety, among many other possibilities.
“We have said from the outset that we wanted to do something creative, something visionary, something designed by industry for industry,” Mark Hendrickson, the county’s economic development director, told the board. “We had a goal of developing something with statewide importance. Upon your approval today, I believe you have accomplished each of these goals.”
Board Chair Daron McDaniel agreed, stating that auto testing is a key part of the county’s vision for the future of Castle as a dynamic, jobs-creating engine for our county and the region.
“Under the leadership of respected experts in automotive technology and research, we will make Merced County a destination for the high-tech firms and innovators who are reshaping transportation worldwide,” he said.
As a third-party operator, TRC Inc. plans to develop the existing testing site at Castle located west of the Airport runway and taxiway, and north of the control tower.
Over the coming months, newly designed “city course” and “vehicle dynamic” testing areas will be constructed. TRC also plans to occupy a couple offices and a shop/repair facility. They plan to be operational on July 1.
They plan to create 133 “direct and indirect” jobs over the next five years, and those include contractors and construction workers, landscapers and security personnel, among other support positions. They also mentioned opportunities for UC Merced research students and academic study.
According to Hendrickson, auto technology testing has been happening already at the site for the past couple of years by a variety of large and small companies. And TRC will not be the only auto tech research operator at Castle. Google’s Waymo company has been successfully testing autonomous vehicle technology on a nearby 130-acre site at Castle for several years. Both sites will be highly secured, Hendrickson added.
TRC Inc. was selected to manage and expand the county-owned research center after an extensive RFP process conducted by KPMG International for the Board of Supervisors.
TRC is a not-for-profit group that was created nearly 50 years ago to attract jobs, investment and research and development. It currently operates a 540-acre SMARTCenter in Ohio which provides transportation innovators with a “roadway complex especially designed for testing automated and connected vehicle systems in a safe, secure and repeatable real-world environment.”
TRC Inc. engineers, test drivers and other technical specialists are skilled at testing for active and passive safety, fuel economy, durability, emissions, noise, crash simulation and crashworthiness as well as autonomous and connected mobility testing of passenger cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, aircraft, off-road, tracked, alternative-fueled vehicles and vehicle systems.
“We are excited to bring our engineering and technical experience to Merced County to help this growing facility reach its full potential,” said Brett Roubinek, TRC Inc.’s president and CEO. “With this strategic location adjacent to Silicon Valley and the Bay Region, the Castle facility and TRC Inc. give the West Coast’s automotive innovators, start ups as well as OEMs, convenient access to the testing facilities and expertise needed to validate their advanced mobility technologies.”
Roubinek described Castle as “The perfect place for this type of endeavor.”
The entire, multi-year AutoTech Testing project — that accelerated very quickly over the past year, according to Hendrickson — was kickstarted by a $6.5 million state grant to improve facilities at Castle that Assemblyman Adam Gray lobbied for in Sacramento. TRC, as a nonprofit, is expected to bring additional investment through government and academic grants, as well as private-sector funding.
Supervisors Pareira, Pedrozo and Espinoza all praised county staff for their hard work that they said sometimes goes under-appreciated.
“I want to assure the public that our Economic Development Department really worked above and beyond to put together this deal,” Pareira said.
Supervisor Scott Silveira, who represents a large portion of the county’s West Side, said he was pleased a third-party operator was brought in for the job at Castle.
“What I do appreciate the most is bringing in a private-sector partner because in government you tend to complicate things and make them more difficult,” he pointed out. “Not that our staff is not capable. I think they’ve been doing a great job, but now we are going to turn this over to a group that specializes in this field. They are going to do great things for us. And now our folks in the Economic Development Department aren’t going to have to focus every bit of their efforts … getting a project like this off the ground, and they will free up some time hopefully so we can look at new and exciting opportunities in other parts of the county. So it’s an all-around win for us today.”
Looking forward, Hendrickson told the Times that the Castle Airport will continue to operate as an airport, and his staff is still pursuing transportation opportunities through regional rail services, as well as the future Merced-Atwater Expressway.
Meanwhile, “Castle’s primary focus will continue to be manufacturing,” he said.