Written by Gabriel Dillard
A ribbon cutting June 23 uniting Fresno County’s youth services began in mid-2020 when one developer looked outside the box for what to do with 138,000 square feet of vacant Costco space.
County officials, developers and contractors alike gathered at what used to be the tire center of the former Costco building in Clovis to cut the ribbon on the project to bring together the entire Department of Social Services.
County officials had been looking for years for a single campus to house the 2,600 employees with the Department of Social Services, said Paul Nerland, county administrative officer.
They looked at numerous locations that could house the five different buildings of the County’s youth services departments. But finding the right one meant getting the necessary square footage.
“Finding that kind of space in Fresno County that would also have easy access to the public was very difficult,” Nerland said.
One of the nearby buildings belonging to Schneider Electric was their first answer, but that meant waiting another three years for the company’s lease to end.
The answer came when Jerry Cook, president of Fresno-based Cook Land Co., reached out to Costco Wholesale after it vacated the 380 W. Ashlan Ave. space in Clovis for new construction at Clovis and Shaw avenues.
It took “extensive negotiations” to be able to purchase the building, Cook said. And when he did by it for $5.5 million in mid-2020, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it. A covenant on the property meant they couldn’t bring in a retailer who sells anything Costco sells.
“Retail was pretty much out of the question because there’s hardly anything Costco doesn’t sell,” Cook said.
He considered recreational uses, RV dealerships and cutting it up into smaller spaces. Then, Cook realized office space was a possibility. He knew the County had been looking for a place to house youth services. It had been targeting the nearby Schneider Electric building — formerly Pelco — but the security company still had its lease.
Cook said it made sense for the County to operate at Costco because it meant only needing a single floor.
But determining a use for the building was only the beginning. Being zoned retail meant securing a change of use with the City of Clovis. He also had to get approval from the other parcel owners in the shopping center. They were worried that bringing more than 580 employees as well as their clients would gobble up the parking lot shared with WinCo Foods and numerous other retailers.
It took individual negotiations with every tenant and building owner to get approval.
With the change-of-use secured, Cook could then look at what it would take to turn a warehouse-style retail space into a modern office people would work in eight hours a day.
The building’s shell couldn’t support the five multi-ton HVAC units needed for a comfortable office.
They had to install numerous high-beam columns and concrete footings to handle the structural load of the units.
“That’s why I think very few have taken on these types of challenges,” Cook said.
A lack of natural light meant contractors had to cut into brick to install 9,000 square feet of windows, including skylights to give light from above.
“It was very important to us and the County that people not feel like they were going into a mausoleum,” Cook said.
Next, they had to remove freezers, a bakery and meat-cutting station. The uninterrupted open space meant they could arrange the different departments into a logical flow.
Some of the departments that use more telecommuting and 24-hour response could be tucked away. Those more public-facing departments would be arranged in a way that makes sense.
Nerland said having the teams together in one location has already wrought benefits.
A lot of the younger workforce appreciate being able to work together in a way they couldn’t before, he said.
The building now has 47 conference rooms, 75 enclosed offices, two training rooms, 548 partitioned offices, one cafeteria, 11 break rooms and 71 restroom stalls for 601 staff members.
They transformed the loading dock into a gated drop-off center for crisis cases.
The move of youth services to the Department of Social Services campus means the near end of the consolidation project that began with then-County Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau and Social Services Director Delfino Neira brought before the Board of Supervisors the proposition to move the agency of 2,600 employees to one property.
The first move was back in 2018, when internal services moved into the first of the five former Pelco buildings. Following that, administrative services came in 2019.
Negotiations had to take place with bus services to provide public transportation for the people served by Social Services.
Cook said 52% of people in Fresno County receive some form of county assistance.
“We’re not talking about just a small group of 5% of the population or some small group,” Cook said. “We’re talking about over half of the population of Fresno County served in some manner by Department of Social Services.”
The $36 million Costco project was finished in 13 months and without any accidents, Cook said. That means it came in on time and under budget.
“We were determined to not let Covid or supply chain shortages be an excuse for not completing on time or below budget,” Cook said.