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A construction crew broke ground on Sept. 5 in Hollister at the corner of San Benito and Fourth Streets—commonly referred to as the 400 block—for the $5.5-million Community Foundation for San Benito County’s philanthropic center, which will be known as the Epicenter. An official groundbreaking ceremony is planned for Sept. 22 by invitation to thank foundation donors and community supporters of the project, according to President and CEO Gary Byrne.
It’s been a long and bumpy political road paved with combative debates and no-holds barred hostilities expressed on social media. Mayor Ignacio Velazquez made repeated, unsubstantiated accusations of collusion between the developers, members of two separate city councils and staff, attempted to place a referendum on the ballot, and even threatened lawsuits against the city.
Byrne told BenitoLink on Aug. 31 that because of poor soil conditions at the site, a foundation of rock columns would be set in place where the four corners of the building would be located next to The Vault, which belongs to Mayor Velazquez. The column work will take about two weeks.
“If the weather cooperates, it should be open in 12-15 months,” Byrne said.
Byrne, who has been with the foundation since 2002, said the search for a larger facility began in 2014 after moving several times in the city as the organization grew and nonprofits asked to use its offices for meetings. Eventually, he said, there was no more space for any new nonprofits.
As donors encouraged him to find a larger, permanent building, Byrne said he looked at every empty building and lot in Hollister. Funding a loan was an issue for the foundation that was answered by Randy and Rebecca Wolf, who donated $5.5 million to pay for the land and the cost of construction. Byrne said the foundation intends to raise an additional $600,000 to purchase furnishings, computers and other office equipment.
Rebecca, who is vice chair of the foundation board, told BenitoLink that she feels fortunate to be able to give back to the community.
“I was born and raised in Hollister, and my family goes back to the mid-1800s,” she said. “When Randy and I were discussing what we could do for the county that would reach a large spectrum of the community, we decided that a philanthropic center would fit the bill.”
Byrne said properties were available outside the city, but he and the Wolfs thought it was important to have a presence downtown.
“We went to every landowner and said, ‘We’d like to purchase your land to build a philanthropic center,’” Byrne said. “Nobody wanted to sell. So, we started looking at buildings. We went to all these empty buildings in town and either the [earthquake] retrofits were going to be extremely costly or most owners didn’t want to sell.”
Byrne said that in 2016, Hollister’s then-City Manager Bill Avera approached them about buying the 400 block. Avera told them the California Redevelopment Agency owned the land and had to dispose of it after the state shut the agency down. The land was valued at approximately $390,000, though a later inspection placed the value at $690,000.
Then Byrne said he heard Del Curto Brothers Construction wanted to build condos and retail stores there. They got together and after some haggling, the foundation and Del Curto Brothers joined forces to purchase the land, which was actually three parcels: a 6,000-square-foot piece next to The Vault; a 22-foot wide section that runs to Briggs Alley, under which city utilities are buried and cannot be built on; and the remaining portion where 22 condos and retail will be built. Each agreed to go in on the purchase together, with the foundation getting a third of the property.
The city asked for bids on the property and only received the one from the foundation and Del Curto Brothers. Then the city asked to extend the bidding process and reached out beyond San Benito County. No new bids were received, so the city agreed to sell it to the Community Foundation and the Del Curto Brothers.
Del Curto Brothers, which is building the Epicenter, will begin construction on the condos and retail stores in approximately six months, according to Darin Del Curto. He said escrow will close on the land in approximately four months.
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