California housing officials have given Tuolumne County the green light to move forward with constructing two so-called community resilience centers in Groveland and the township of Tuolumne.

Deputy County Administrator Maureen Frank, who is overseeing the federally funded projects, announced on Tuesday that she received notice of the approval from the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

“The county and community sees this as a huge deal,” Frank said in an interview on Wednesday. “I would say maybe an extraordinarily huge deal.”

Construction of the centers will be funded with about $20 million from a $70 million the state received in 2016 through the National Disaster Resilience Competition, a $1 billion program created by the Obama administration to help areas ravaged by disasters recover and become more resilient.

Frank said the centers are anticipated to be open to the public by September 2022, which is the deadline for completing projects funded by the program.

“I know September 2022 sounds like a long way away, but we need to continue working the community and architect to finalize the design of these buildings, get everything out to bid, and then a 14-month construction timeline,” she said.

Each of the facilities will be powered by generators in the event of a disaster or power blackouts, which are expected to happen more frequently in the region now that the state gave Pacific Gas and Electric Co. permission to shut off power temporarily for customers in areas with high fire risk.

The goal of the centers go beyond just providing a place for people to seek respite in the event of a disaster like a major fire or flooding, as the county and nonprofit organizations are planning to offer services at both.

For example, there will be online classes through Columbia College and food bank distribution once a week by the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency. Both will also have a Sheriff’s Office Community Services Unit, as well as clinics, classes, and community outreach provided by the county Human Services Agency.

“For both facilities, we will be taking services and programs that are traditionally being provided out of the downtown Sonora area and bringing them directly out to those communities,” Frank said.

Frank also said the facilities could host activities like the county’s popular all-day summer youth recreation program, which is currently in limbo this year due to the county being unable to find an appropriate facility it can afford to rent.

There was no guarantee the county would be allowed to build the two centers without the work and advocacy done by Frank and other officials.

Tuolumne County was selected by the state in 2015 to be the sole beneficiary of California’s entry in the competition due to the massive Rim Fire two years earlier that burned more than 400 square miles and threatened local communities.

The state and county initially crafted a $117 million proposal that asked for $55 million to build the two centers, but at first it appeared they would only be able to construct one because the amount they ultimately received for the projects.

“It was very disheartening, because the reason and need for the two centers didn’t go away,” Frank said.

As opposed to building one large facility, the county Board of Supervisors directed Frank and others to continue with planning for two scaled-down centers due to the unique needs in each community.

Frank said the state allowed them to plan for the two facilities as long as they still complied with the spirit and intent of the original proposal.

“We were very grateful when they at least allowed us to pursue looking at two centers,” Frank said.

The county hired the Sacramento-based firm Lionakis Architects to see the projects through initial planning and design phase. Lionakis also worked with the county on its $40 million jail project that’s currently under construction.

There were two dozen well-attended community meetings hosted by the county to gather input on what the public wanted out of the centers.

“County staff has been working with the community and stakeholders for two years to define what resiliency means to them and goals we want to accomplish with these two facilities,” Frank said.”

The township of Tuolumne wanted a facility that would be close to the downtown core area and provide a place where people could conduct trainings, access services, and serve as a catalyst for economic development.

Meanwhile, the Groveland area wanted a facility geared more toward social cohesion in the community and would provide a gathering spot where people could learn and recreate.

There will be an educational program provided by the county Superintendent of Schools Office at the center in Tuolumne, while the one in Groveland will have senior meals, classes and outreach efforts provided by the nonprofit group Southside Senior Services Inc., which currently operates out of a smaller county-owned facility in the area.

The American Red Cross, Mother Lode Job Training, county Animal Control, and the county library and adult learning program have offered to partner with the county in providing services at the centers.

“These facilities have amazing opportunities to change people’s lives,” she said. “What excites me most as a county staff person is to help facilitate that transformation.”

Each center is estimated to be about 12,000 square feet and contain a lobby area, office space, large gathering room for up to 200 people, commercial kitchen, bathrooms and one or two classrooms. They will also each have approximately 200 parking spaces and a “multi-functional outdoor area,” such as a covered picnic area or stage.

The center in Groveland is anticipated to cost nearly $10 million and be located west of Ferretti Road and Pine Mountain Drive, while the center in Tuolumne is estimated to cost $8 million and be at the southeast corner of Bay Avenue and Cherry Valley Boulevard.

Acquiring the property from the current landowners will be one of the first steps of the next phase.

To get approval from the state, the county also had to develop a five-year plan for sustaining ongoing operations costs that are expected to be about $30,000 annually. Maintenance costs between the two are expected to total about $30,000.

County officials believe each facility will be able to more than offset operating costs through office, classroom and event rental, which are estimated to generate about $40,000 or more per year in revenue.

“We don’t want to build something that we’re not able to operate or is a burden on the General Fund,” she said. “The county needs to make sure these buildings are able to stand on their own.”

Progress is also being made on other projects funded by the $70 million from the National Disaster Competition.

About $28 million is funding work being led by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to improve forest and watershed health within the county by reducing fire fuels and removing biomass, eradicating harmful and invasive weeds, improving rangeland, reforesting burned areas, and expanding fuel breaks.

The service awarded $8.5 million in contracts this spring for fuels reduction projects in the Stanislaus National Forest and $750,000 for weed eradication, the latter of which has already been completed across 2,602 acres.

Another $22 million was awarded to build a facility that could generate power and produce wood products out of biomass removed from the forest. Three feasibility studies on the project have been completed so far at a total cost of about $172,755.

The Sierra Nevada Conservancy is currently working with the Rural Corporation Assistance Corp. to secure more funding and partners in the project.

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