MOJAVE — Nearly two years of work and research have identified needs and opportunities for the Mojave area, according to Amanda Barnes, Kern County’s economic development specialist for Mojave.
Chief among the needs: a drug store, private daycare facility and refurbishing the town’s existing housing stock. The opportunity: the area’s abundant industrial infrastructure.
Barnes laid out her report during the Mojave Chamber of Commerce’s Zoom meeting on Thursday, Oct. 22. Barnes, along with Suzette Caufield in Ridgecrest and Alexia Svejda in California City, is funded by a $450,000 grant from the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment and $50,000 from Kern County to look at goals outlined in the East Kern County Economic Diversification Plan.
The grant expires at the end of this year.
A private daycare tops the list for needed commercial businesses in Mojave.
“The need there was extensive and there was nothing available,” Barnes said. Conversations with Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Karina Drees showed MASP’s employees were among those who needed the service their children.
Barnes and Drees worked through a few outlets, including leasing airport district-owned property near the airport and working under the umbrella of the Mojave Unified School District.
“We worked through some of the options and the last update was that Mojave Air and Space Port was going to do a financial review to determine the cost involved and find out if the employers were willing to put in to develop that for their employees,” Barnes said.
The coronavirus pandemic delayed the review, but the airport plans to continue it at an undetermined time and continue the discussions with new superintendent Katherine Aguirre.
Barnes also noted there were discussions with Cerro Coso College about bringing more career technical education courses to the Mojave and California City area to accommodate those who had transportation issues or otherwise could not commute to the main campus in Ridgecrest.
Svejda has taken the lead on that role, including trying to secure a mobile welding class for high school students.
Mojave also needs a drug store or pharmacy, according to Barnes. The last storefront pharmacy, Mojave Pharmacy, closed shop in 2017 after it was hit with allegations of over-dispensing medication such as oxycodone.
Barnes said the TIP Strategies report indicated a lot of leakage for prescription needs, with people obtaining medication in other communities.
The nearest pharmacies are either in California City or Tehachapi.
Barnes said she spoke with three major retail pharmacy stores — Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS — to gauge interest in coming to Mojave. Rite Aid closed a store in Mojave because it did not perform well.
“At least in terms of retail chains, given the current economic climate in Mojave, none of the drug stores were open to further discussions about opening up a drugstore branch in Mojave,” Barnes said.
The pandemic cut short a chance to re-connect base with the retailers again this year.
“COVID canceled everything, but it’s going to be on the list of potential things to do for whoever takes over these projects at the end of this two-year period,” Barnes said.
Barnes said another project that will continue on a list of things after her tenure expires will be redeveloping vacant buildings into office space to benefit Mojave businesses, such as Mojave Air and Space Port tenants.
“It was indicated to me at the very start of this position that expansion was needed,” Barnes said, especially for those businesses who might not need runway access. “At the time, it was determined that those buildings were not was needed, but we took a look at them and ran some analysis over it would work out and get some of those vacant buildings filled up and ... redeveloped into something Mojave needs.”
She also utilized connections through the Aerospace Valley Futures working group to potentially pull in bankers or investors to redevelop Mojave infrastructure.
“That is still under works and is a current project through the Aerospace Valley Futures ... and will be continually on the list past my contract,” Barnes said, adding the goals are to bring small businesses to Mojave.
“It may be a bar or a restaurant open for dinner or somebody that can utilize those vacant shops or buildings to benefit Mojave,” Barnes said. She added hopefully the Mojave Chamber can be pulled into those projects.
Mojave’s location on major transportation routes benefits the town’s industrial potential, Barnes said. She added she and her counterparts benefited from the 2019 Kern Transporation Conference.
“We realized Mojave specifically has some great industrial properties available that have rail access and 58 and 14 freeway access,” Barnes said. “Those not even not at those crossroads ... would make for some great logistics locations. Logistics seems to be where everything is moving since brick and mortar stores are closing more often and businesses are offering more services online.”
She added such services “need space.” While Mojave might be 120 miles from the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, a desirable spot for companies, the lack of available land presents an issue. Mojave’s access to rail lines could ensure a solid means of transportation too and from the LA basin.
“That became a really big focus of how we could market ourselves or have site selectors look at us for potential or future development,” Barnes said.
Barnes said she spoke with Caltrans, BNSF and Union Pacific about pursuing the course. An opportunity from GoBiz, or Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development, allowed Kern County to submit a Request For Information proposals on sites that fit within the needs of companies looking to build, relocate or expand.
Two RFIs proposals were developed and submitted covering five properties. The RFIs included everything from map locations and distance to ports to utility access.
GoBiz took over from there and continued conversations with prospective businesses.
“When we spoke with GoBiz, they were not aware that we had those types of properties available and how close we are to major ports...that was pretty shocking,” Barnes said. Barnes the other economic specialists met with GoBiz to go over everything available.
Barnes said that hopefully armed with the information for future prospects, GoBiz would have Mojave “in mind maybe a little bit more than they did before because they were completely unaware of the amount of land we have available.
Revamping residential real estate
Barnes said another project she has pursued includes redeveloping existing housing stock due to the difficulty of attracting new developments.
“The current housing stock in Mojave is pretty aged,” Barnes said. “A lot of it hasn’t been taken care of to keep it in a condition to where it holds a decent value.”
Conversations with different developments provided additional reasons for not building in Mojave.
“The main reason why nobody would pull the trigger on trying to develop a new housing tract in Mojave is costs were too high compared to what they could sell the house for given the current median price of the housing stock that’s available in Mojave,” Barnes said. “It was going to cost more than what they could get for the house at that time, and this is was mostly last year. Building costs at the time were exceptionally high and it just didn’t pencil out.”
The real estate market website Zillow placed the median house price for Mojave at around $164,000 in September.
A conversation with the Kern County Planning Department indicated the current housing stock needs to be improved before new development can be drawn to the town.
“My task then changed to do what we could to get as much of the houses as possible up to code,” Barnes said. She followed through with a weeks-long extensive crash course in code compliance and netted a few wins in the process.
“I had a few success stories where some of the businesses or houses that were extremely dilapidated were brought up to par,” Barnes said.
Some of the properties included owners or investors putting money into them.
“The more that is done, the better the chances of getting an investor to come and take a look at more of the properties in Mojave to develop,” Barnes said.