10:00 PM PST on Friday, January 8, 2010

Cassie MacDuff, The Press-Enterprise

San Bernardino County supervisors have heard from more than 200 applicants for the county administrative officer post since they fired Mark Uffer two months ago.

But in truth, they’ve been interested in only one man from the start: Ontario City Manager Greg Devereaux.

Devereaux has been Ontario’s manager since 1997 and Fontana’s before that, from 1992 to 1997. He’s widely respected among local municipal leaders.

“Greg’s the brightest around,” Councilman Alan Wapner said. “He understands business as well as he understands government.”

That helped Ontario become known as business-friendly and attract development downtown, Wapner said.

I drove to Ontario on Thursday to see for myself.

When I got out of my car at the Civic Center, the sounds of nail guns and drills emanated from a senior-citizen complex under construction, a rarity in today’s economic slowdown.

City Hall itself is under renovation. Several blocks have been cleared for a central plaza. A gleaming new library facing the plaza site brings as many as 40,000 people a month downtown.

Across the street, freshly built condominiums (intended for sale until the market tanked) have filled up with renters, the beginnings of a walkable neighborhood.

Next door, new affordable housing shares similar architecture and a compatible color scheme.

The city-subsidized redevelopment replaced several blocks of deteriorating businesses — thrift store, lumber yard and others — that had lost customers to newer, freeway-adjacent malls.

Cities throughout the country have wrestled with such downtown decay — San Bernardino, for instance, the county seat where the supervisors’ offices are.

Supervisor Neil Derry told me part of the reason he wanted a new CAO was to get things moving on a new government center in downtown San Bernardino.

The moribund Carousel Mall, which has been sucking the life out of downtown San Bernardino for years, seems to be the chosen site.

San Bernardino has struggled for two decades with how to revitalize its downtown. Plans have been picked up and dropped, including the infamous “lakes and streams,” after hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent.

Why has Ontario succeeded where San Bernardino failed?

Wapner said having a stable city government and a city manager trusted by the business community has helped Ontario realize its vision.

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