Mare Island Dry Dock is just one example of the kind of job growth that is putting the former Naval base on target as a vibrant jobs center. Opening in 2013 with just 20 employees, there are now 150 fulltime employees and just as many subcontractors, plus 500 or so customers and vessel managers who remain on site while ships are repaired, said Christina Snyder, executive vice president.
Elsewhere, other businesses, such as Mare Island Brewery and Factory O_S, are opening and expanding in renovated historic warehouses, coal sheds and other structures. It all adds to a strong mix of jobs and work opportunities. “The nice thing is the diversity of jobs and also how they are occurring. It reflects the strength and vibrancy of what’s happening,” said Ron Gerber, city economic development director. As more ventures open, Vallejo, Benicia and other areas benefit with new jobs and economic opportunities.
Mare Island’s transformation from historic Naval base to jobs center has been steady since the late 90s, with one noticeable dip in the 2008 recession. The 1996 base closure hit Vallejo hard but signs are pointing to an upward swing. More recently, Mare Island added 85 new permanent jobs in the first half of 2018, a figure that represents more than 2 ½ years of sustained growth. Though the current jobs numbers are nowhere near the base’s World War II peak of 40,000 they are the highest they’ve been since 1997, according to Lennar Mare Island.
The area sports an estimated 2,600 jobs, and 105 businesses using 3.8million square feet of space. At least 1,200 more jobs could be created on the city-owned north end parcel where millions are being spent to remove blighted buildings and pave the way for 1.2 million square feet of commercial and industrial uses. Gerber said the mix could include wineries, restaurants, retail and a film studio.
What makes Mare Island desirable for businesses? Snyder cited a combination of factors with location and a wealth of historic buildings and infrastructure. Though no shipbuilding is taking place, Mare Island Dry Dock is able to utilize the historic dry docks in much the same way the Navy used them, she said. “Ultimately, the Navy abandoned very unique assets here on the island. It is not only the graving docks that will not be built again, but the many buildings with their extraordinary roof heights and vast square footage that can support large manufacturing is something you just won’t see built again.”
“We are fortunate to be able to bring back this capability that is scarce in the U.S.,” she said. In turn, the company can offer blue-collar jobs and help service shipping vessels that transit the San Francisco Bay. Jobs also include many skilled workers, including engineers, welders, pipe and structural fitters, electricians and rigging and crane operations, plus accountants, inspectors and EMT’S. More than half of the employees live in Vallejo. Then, Snyder said, there is Mare Island’s “cool factor, with the island’s naval history, the charm of its architecture, its balance of landmarks and what is new is really something to behold,” Snyder said.
Other entrepreneurs are also attracted to that coolness, including Napa County wine mogul Dave Phinney who is behind the new Savage & Cooke distillery found in the base’s oldest buildings in the historic core. The distillery was covered in Benicia Magazine in the September issue. Phinney has also has leased five other buildings, drawn to the island’s rich history and legacy. Vallejo’s other assets, including a protective harbor, the ferry service, immediate access to freeways and proximity to larger cities puts it in a good position for growth, development and mixed-use opportunities, she said.
Mare Island may never again see the kinds of jobs and activity the base had in prior decades, but it is well on its way to branding a new identity, one that mixes the old and the new, bringing economic opportunities to Vallejo and Benicia.