Discussions are underway between Delano officials and the Wonderful Co. to move the city's airport hundreds of yards to the east, potentially allowing the region's largest agricultural employer to expand and create new jobs in the area.
Much about the project remains to be ironed out and sensitive negotiations with neighboring property owners await, but people involved say the idea is for the company to contribute $20 million toward the effort while the city puts in $6 million.
While the most immediate benefit to the city would be a new airport, there is also a possibility that the project could lead to an expansion of Wonderful's mandarin packing plant just southwest of Delano Municipal Airport. A city councilman said Thursday that he was told thousands of new ag-related jobs may come out of the effort.
But it could also be that the move leads instead to a new juicing plant that would produce 80 new jobs at the most — or perhaps no new employment at all, said a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
Wonderful Co., a major local employer and one of the state's largest privately held companies, would only confirm that the talks are ongoing.
"The Wonderful Company has had discussions with the city of Delano about moving the existing airport in exchange for land adjacent to our Halos plant," it said in a written statement. "We are in the early stages and no decisions have been made about how the land might be developed."
Several senior Delano officials including City Manager Maribel Reyna did not respond to multiple requests for comment left over a period of two days. But City Councilman Joe Aguirre said the discussions have gone on for years and taken a few twists along the way.
Originally the plan was for the 80-year-old, 546-acre airport to be moved miles to the west onto an 800-acre federal property that previously housed a Voice of America radio broadcast facility, he said. But now the plan is for the city to buy that property next month to accommodate new housing.
Aguirre said his understanding, based on talks at Delano City Hall, was that Wonderful planned to develop the existing airport property in two phases, ultimately creating no fewer than 2,000 new jobs.
"They want to expand their juicing, their citrus program," he said. "We're talking about a couple of thousand" new jobs.
Before any move may proceed, Aguirre said, the city must negotiate to buy farmland just east of the airport. He noted the move would impact a rancher or two.
He estimated the entire move might take up to 10 years to complete because of the city's existing leases with airport tenants.
But the person who spoke on condition of anonymity said the project could move much more quickly than that, even as it requires the approval of the federal government.
Even if the project leads to only 80 new jobs, Aguirre asserted, it appears to be in the city's best interest. He added that Wonderful originally said it wanted to put in an amusement park on the property.
The Federal Aviation Administration said by email Thursday the airport has not submitted any project for review to the agency.