Politicians gushed and a company official crowed but it was the little blue robots that stole the show Thursday as e-commerce giant Amazon pulled back the veil on the massive distribution center it has been working on in Oildale for close to two years.
A day after announcing it was looking for 1,000 workers to help staff the facility, the Seattle-based retailer gave local public officials and news reporters a tour of the building expected to begin operations Sept. 6 across Merle Haggard Drive from Meadows Field Airport.
Inside the four-story building, robots the size of an ottoman scurried around the warehouse floor, slipping in below to pick up, precisely move and set down storage bins that looked almost like tall yellow refrigerators only lighter.
There's no need to organize incoming products according to category, General Manager Amit Sonar said, because the facility's automation system remembers where every item is and can retrieve it within a few moments' notice. Lights tell human "pickers" exactly where on bins to find the product they're looking for.
"This is one of the most advanced buildings that Amazon has," he said, adding that the building — four stories, each about the size of 11 football fields — is the company's 26th "fulfillment center" in California.
Thursday's activity was nothing more than a limited demonstration, but Sonar said when the facility enters full operation the robots will be moving in an intricately choreographed dance that'll be a sight to behold.
Certainly local officials were impressed, even before having stepped inside.
"A meaningful partnership is what I see and what I feel from Amazon," Leticia Perez, chairwoman of the Kern County Board of Supervisors, said just before joining Sonar and others in a ceremonial ribbon-cutting. The board has agreed to provide the company with an estimated $3 million in tax rebates in exchange for its commitment to hire at least 1,000 county residents at an average wage of $31,000 per year at the distribution center.
"We welcome you, we thank you and we look forward to sharing in your success," Perez said.
Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh, who snapped pictures during the tour, called Amazon "a true partner in our community."
"More than 1,000 jobs is remarkable," she said before the tour. "That's exactly what our community needs."
Sonar explained that Amazon selected the site not, as some had assumed, because of its proximity to Meadows Field but for its location near customers and an available workforce.
In June, the president of Bakersfield College, partnering with the company on a series of job-recruitment events, posted a blog saying she understood Amazon wanted to hire more than 3,000 people to work at the facility full and part time.
Sonar would confirm only that the company is currently looking to hire closer to 1,000 people and that some of Amazon's fulfillment centers do employ 3,000 or more people. It may be that additional hiring will happen later, he said, adding he did not know how many robots will work at the facility.
Anyone hoping for a job at the new center was advised to go online at amazon.com/bakojobs or by texting "BAKONOW" to 77088.
The company started recruiting months ago for managers and high-level employees such as human relations and information technology workers. Sonar said no one is currently working at the center, which received a certificate of occupancy from the county July 31, though he added some managers are being trained at an Amazon fulfillment center he used to work at in Fresno.
Warehousing jobs at the new center will pay $15 to start, the company said, and full-time employees immediately qualify for comprehensive health benefits as well as a 401(k) program with a 50 percent company match. Also, the company offers to pay 95 percent of tuition for college courses in in-demand fields, regardless of whether that education relates to their current job with Amazon.
On Thursday, Amazon announced a $15,000 gift to the Kern Community Foundation, whose president and CEO, Kristen A. Beall Watson, was on hand to thank the company and say she looks forward to future partnerships with the company, such as volunteer hours.
The county's top planner, Lorelei Oviatt, joined Thursday's tour and said by email later the building represents "a standard for the kind of high quality companies we want for our economic growth."
"Everyone working on this project from the Amazon consultants, contractors and company coordinators to the local construction trades were always interested in learning our local standards and needs and being responsive to get this project completed," she wrote.
"I look forward," she continued, "to hearing about any plans Amazon has for locating another fulfillment center or other facility here in Kern."