STOCKTON -- This San Joaquin Delta city has known hard times in recent years, with soaring home foreclosures, high unemployment, terrifying gang violence and a municipal bankruptcy. So when Google's mysterious tech barge arrived in port on Thursday, local residents greeted it like their ship had come in.

"The Google mother ship has made its way over here. I don't care what's in it," said 24-year-old Miguel Guillen, one of many local residents who flocked all day to a parking lot where they could take photos of the massive barge and its odd-looking superstructure.

"It's putting us on the map -- in a positive way for once," said Guillen, a lifelong Stockton resident who counts seven former schoolmates as victims of gang-related killings. "That's the beauty. It's pushing away the negativity."

Google was forced to relocate the barge after state authorities said San Francisco's Treasure Island lacked the necessary permits to finish building what the company has described as a floating exhibition center to showcase cutting-edge technology. Stockton officials gathered on a quiet pier Thursday morning to welcome the 250-foot vessel and its two escorting tugboats, which took nearly eight hours to travel roughly 70 miles from Treasure Island to their city on the San Joaquin River.

"I don't think anybody really knows what they're doing here or how long they will be here," said Douglass Wilhoit Jr., chief of the Stockton Chamber of Commerce, referring to Google. "But anything they do is positive for the city and for the Port of Stockton."


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Stockton's taken more than its share of bruises in recent years. The local economy was shattered when last decade's housing boom went bust, and the city was forced two years ago to seek bankruptcy protection from crushing liabilities, including employee pensions and massive borrowing to finance a waterfront redevelopment project.

Crime soared after Stockton slashed its police force and closed community centers, along with other service cutbacks. Lenders foreclosed on city properties, and there was even talk of selling City Hall, which news reports described as "rat-infested."

"Stockton hit rock bottom in 2012," said Mayor Anthony Silva, who was elected in November of that year.

"But we're climbing back up," he said, noting that the city of 300,000 residents had 58 homicides in 2011, a record 71 in 2012 and 32 last year. While Stockton is starting to rebuild its economy, Silva said, the arrival of the Google barge is a symbol of the city's efforts to create a welcoming environment for new business and jobs.

"Having 'Google' and 'Stockton' in the same sentence is much better than having 'Stockton' and 'bankruptcy' in the same sentence, or 'Stockton' and 'crime,' " the mayor added.

Google hasn't promised to do any hiring in the city, officials acknowledged. Port officials say Google representatives simply agreed to pay standard rates, about $12,000 a month, for a six-month mooring agreement.

The giant tech company, in fact, has kept a tight lid on its plans for the barge -- only reluctantly confirming ownership last November, after reporting by tech news blog CNET sparked a frenzy of speculation and news coverage.

Google told some Bay Area officials last year that it wants to create a floating exhibition "studio," where hundreds of daily visitors could interact with "groundbreaking technology," presumably including Google products. But the project ran into unexpected delays involving construction and permit approvals from both the U.S. Coast Guard and a state environmental agency.

In a brief statement Thursday, Google said: "It's been a busy six months for our barge, and it's grown tired of all the attention, so we are moving it to Stockton, where it can have a break, enjoy the city's delicious asparagus and warmer climate and get a bit of rest before its next chapter." The statement included a link to the website for Stockton's annual Asparagus Festival, scheduled for next month.

Google declined to provide further information. Stockton officials said they surmised the company plans to finish outfitting the barge while it's in their port, which handles $1 billion worth of cargo a year, including 1.5 million tons of food crops and other exports.

"We're small but mighty," said port Executive Director Richard Aschieris, who added that the port has facilities for rebuilding and retrofitting cargo barges that make about 220 round trips a year between Stockton and Oakland.

It's unclear why Google chose Stockton, but the port is outside the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the agency that found problems with Treasure Island's lack of permits.

Facing a Friday deadline to leave Treasure Island, Google representatives contacted Aschieris in recent days and finalized the mooring agreement early Thursday morning, he said. As rumors of Google's interest swirled through the town, Silva said Aschieris texted him just before 5 a.m. to report: "Done deal."

Officials say Google hasn't mentioned any plans for opening the barge to visitors while it's in Stockton, although lifelong resident Maggie Robles said she'd like to see what's on board.

"Stockton hasn't had nothing like that in a long time," she said, while eating lunch with her husband at a small taqueria near the port. "People can't even afford to go outside to go shopping, with the economy."

But Robles and her husband Robert, a concrete truck driver, echoed other residents who said they're feeling a little more optimistic about Stockton these days. "We have been bankrupt," she said. "We're trying to make things better."

Contact Brandon Bailey at bbailey@mercurynews.com or follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey; contact Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@mercurynews.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.