Union Democrat staff

Yes, the jobless rate has climbed to near-record levels in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, and experts say the employment picture is unlikely to improve much for several months.

Yet despite those numbers, there has been a recent surge of investment, new construction and upcoming projects here in The Mother Lode.

Later this week, we'll see the grand opening of the new Veteran's Medical Clinic in East Sonora. This $2.5 million project that will greatly enhance the services available to our local veterans.

Sonora's Wal-Mart, with plans to add a 30,000-square-foot grocery section to its Sonora store, is supersizing. Speaking of supersizing, McDonald's is asking to build a new outlet at Mono Way and Sanguinetti Road.

Lowe's is chomping at the bit to build its much-delayed, 111,000-square-foot home-improvement store off Old Wards Ferry Road.

And that's just a stone's throw from the site of Tuolumne County's proposed Law and Justice Center, which could begin with construction of a much-needed juvenile detention facility. It would include a jail, courtrooms, a new California Highway Patrol headquarters, and offices for the DA and public defender, all to be built over many years. Much of the funding will come from state government coffers.

Doesn't sound like the doldrums, does it? And the above projects aren't the only ones likely to bring jobs and commercial activity to our area. Below is a sampling of what's afoot:

• Construction of $52.5 million in Columbia College bond projects, all approved by district voters in 2004, is still under way. Included are several on-campus buildings and a satellite campus near Angels Camp.

• Both Jamestown and Angels Camp are launching federally funded "facade improvement" projects aimed at sprucing up their historic downtown areas. Jamestown, coincidentally, just completed a long-pending, $300,000 beautification project.

• The Stanislaus National Forest, with more than $3.5 million in stimulus funds, is repairing trails, upgrading campgrounds and improving forest attractions.

• Nearly $2 million in stimulus funds are also paying to repave nine miles of Highway 49 north of Sonora and install a new and needed stoplight at the Pedro Y.

• A new 22-plane hangar, which will cost about $800,000, is on tap at the Calaveras County Airport. So are water tanks, access road repair, security fencing and a new aviation electronics store.

• Bret Harte High School, with an anonymous $1 million donation and a matching grant, is building a 7,000-square-foot multipurpose building next to the high school theater. Bond-funded work on a new track and bleacher are nearly complete, and ground will soon be broken on a pool.

• The Tuolumne Utilities District has received $4 million to continue upgrading its Big Hill water system.

• The San Andreas Sanitary District and Calaveras County Water District have together received $7.5 million in federal funds for overhaul of the San Andreas sewer treatment plant and two huge steel water tanks in West Point.

• Local historians have cobbled together grants, donations and state funds have to install nearly $190,000 worth of shelves at the now crowded Tuolumne County Museum.

• Fifteen projects are planned on or near the Stanislaus National Forest, including litter and illegal dump cleanup in the high country, fuel break construction and forest road repair. The costs, $302,000 will be paid through a federal program aimed at helping counties that are homes to national forests.

• With a state grant of more than $2.7 million, Mother Lode Internet of Sonora and a Sacramento partner are improving infrastructure to bring broadband to now underserved areas of Tuolumne, Calaveras and three neighboring counties.

Yes, many of these projects are proposed by public agencies, but all will benefit the private citizens of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, and one of those benefits will be much-needed new jobs.