At the far southern end of the Central Valley, along a remote stretch of Interstate 5, Tejon Ranch Co. hopes to turn a staffing dilemma into a major business opportunity.
The company’s busy Tejon Ranch Commerce Center employs about 4,000 people, none of whom live nearby. Some drive about 20 minutes to work from the Frazier Park area, while others commute from Arvin or Bakersfield, both of which entail commutes of roughly half an hour.
What happens if the company reaches its goal of adding new warehousing and retail space that would employ an additional 6,000 or so workers over the next 20 years? Without large-scale housing in the immediate area, where will they all come from?
The company’s preferred answer is Grapevine, a master-planned community that, besides expanding the area’s stock of commercial real estate by up to a third, would include as many 12,000 new housing units.
Call it a twist on California’s “smart growth” development trend. Tejon Ranch hopes Grapevine not only functions as a kind of self-sustaining residential community but that it also provides a ready workforce for the Lebec-based agribusiness and real estate developer’s existing industrial complex nearby.
In that respect, the proposal set for public discussion Tuesday is, if not unique, at least novel. The commerce center may be ideally located as a distribution hub, travel pitstop and outlet mall, but its geography is less than convenient for workers. That means Grapevine, with its residential capacity of perhaps 36,000 people expected to move in in phases during two decades, could become an important source of the company’s — and Kern County’s — future growth.
Already the company has large distribution-center tenants in the area, including Ikea and Caterpillar. But it owns a lot more industrial land in the area that it has yet to fill, and would-be tenants may be reluctant to move in without an ample source of workers nearby.
“We recognize there is a need as a company to provide for the continual growth of the workforce to support the continued development of the commerce center and the economy of Kern County, and the diversification of Kern County,” said Tejon Ranch’s vice president of community development and resource planning, Derek C. Abbott.
Bakersfield industrial real estate broker Wayne Kress sees Grapevine as sweetening the deal for distribution center operators who are on the fence about moving to southern Kern County. They don’t tend to like the idea of employees commuting from as far away as Arvin, he said.
But build worker housing next to the commerce center, as Grapevine would do, and the decision to move to Kern County becomes easier, Kress said.
“It might make it easier for Tejon to land employers who would build commercial and industrial facilities down there,” he said.
One-stop residential community
Grapevine is unlike the company’s other master-planned residential projects, Tejon Mountain Village, along Interstate 5 in Lebec, and Centennial, north and east of Highway 138 and Interstate 5. Both developments would include retail and other commercial facilities, but neither is located next to an existing commercial complex.
Named for its location 25 miles south of Bakersfield at the foot of the I-5 Grapevine, the 8,010-acre project would be largely self-contained, with 1.2 million square feet of retail, 2.34 million square feet of office or other commercial space and 1.45 million square of light industrial space.
It would also include schools spread across 157 acres, 96 acres of new park space, and public facilities such as a library, fire stations, a Kern County Sheriff’s substation, transit facilities and wastewater treatment facilities.
Questions have been raised about the wisdom of building such a large development in an area where traffic can be heavy, air quality is poor and water scarce.
According to a draft environmental review now undergoing public inspection, the California Highway Patrol has said Grapevine would pose new traffic problems. Separately, the state Department of Transportation voiced concerns about traffic flow, and said it expects the development to worsen the area’s air quality.
Abbott defended the project as an engine for economic growth, one that will be “very helpful in attracting many businesses to Kern County.”
Planning for ‘smart growth’
County officials have generally viewed the development positively.
Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt said Grapevine incorporates the “smart growth” ideal of housing situated close to employment opportunities, an arrangement that reduces the need for long commutes that contribute to air pollution.
It’s also a very livable concept, she added.
“People don’t want to get in their cars and drive 40 minutes every day,” she said.
The county’s assistant administrative officer over economic and workforce development, Teresa Hitchcock, saw the development as being part of a balancing act. Until now, she said, Tejon Ranch has been able to develop its commerce center along I-5 without the need for new housing. It has done that by connecting the project with public transportation centered in Bakersfield.
But at some point, she said, such projects get big enough to merit their own homes.
“There's the problem: What comes first, the chicken or the egg? If there were no jobs out there they wouldn’t develop houses,” Hitchcock said.
Kern County Supervisor David Couch, who represents the area around the Grapevine site, did not respond to a request for comment.