Union Democrat staff

Is there a light at the end of this long and dark economic tunnel?

We've been hearing for months that the so-called Great Recession is over, but relief seems stubbornly slow in coming to our neck of the woods.

But that may change.

Tractor Supply is already open in East Sonora and reportedly doing

record business. Site work has begun for the Sonora Lowe's store, and

the home-improvement center could be open for Christmas. And before

2010 is out, Kohl's department store will be settling into East

Sonora's Junction shopping center.

And two major government projects have already begun to fuel the employment engine:

• Ground was broken late last year at Columbia College for a $14.7

million Science and Natural Resources Building, and construction will

continue through May of next year.

• Improvements have already begun at Highway 108 and Via Este,

setting the stage for a major public works project: The two-year, $65

million second phase of the East Sonora Bypass. Construction, alone

estimated to cost more than $32 million, is scheduled to begin in


Broward Builders of Woodland in September began work on the

college's 24,000-square-foot science building. It is the latest in a

series of projects funded by Measure E, a $326 million bond issue

approved by college district voters in 2004.

Those bonds are funding more than $52 million in Columbia projects,

which included the $2.3 million Madrone Building for welding technology

and auto body classes, the $2.8 million public safety center and a $9.1

million child development center.

Dennis Gervin, the college's vice president for student learning,

said the Science and Natural Resources project will directly or

indirectly employ up to 200 workers on site and nearly as many off site

during the construction.

According to the college district, the building is "a model of

green design and sustainable architecture" with its solar panels and

geothermal heating and cooling. Boasting a full complement of labs,

lecture rooms and computer centers, it will open to students no later

than the fall of 2011.

On the road front, George Reed Inc. has begun work on a $561,000

Caltrans improvement project on Via Este, at the eastern end of the

East Sonora Bypass's second phase.

The main event will be Phase 2 itself, which will extend the

Highway 108 Bypass about a mile from Standard Road to Via Este for an

estimated $32.25 million. Caltrans is scheduled to call for bids on

Aug. 30 and award a contract in November.

The two-year job is expected to begin Dec. 1.

The project will include an 85-foot-high, 750-foot-long overpass

where the bypass crosses the existing highway from north to south and a

smaller bridge over Peaceful Oak Road. Two frontage roads and about $1

million in improvements to the bypassed section of highway, which will

become part of Mono Way, are also part of the job.

Duke York, deputy director of Public Works, foresees a very

competitive bidding on the project and heavy use of local

subcontractors throughout construction. Also, he added, the project

should spur numerous business moves as owners jockey to take advantage

of new traffic patterns.

Although York wouldn't venture a guess on numbers, the bypass and

related projects should spur a major increase in local employment. And

the multiplier effect of new construction dollars injected into our

economy will have a positive effect as well.

Which just might help bring that light at the end of the economic tunnel into focus.