Growth brings in donors

Sandra Emerson, Staff Writer
Posted: 06/01/2010 09:59:31 PM PDT

The mayoral campaigns in some of the Inland Empire’s fastest growing cities rake in more than $100,000 each in political contributions.

The last mayoral race in Montclair, a city with little room to grow, brought in $13,000 in contributions.

But some experts disagree whether opportunities motivate developers to make contributions.

Developers tend to be interested in campaigns in cities where they already have an investment, said Doug Johnson, a fellow with the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College.

“Sometimes (developers) give where they are developing, where they own the land already and where they’re working on plans,” Johnson said. “Developers don’t really go into towns they don’t own land in yet.”

Developers who already own land in a community are more apt to make sure their investment or plans are not compromised, said Jack Pitney, a political-science professor at Claremont McKenna.

“Even if you already own land, you have to deal with government restrictions on how you use that property, and that automatically gives you a stake in government decisions. … If you don’t already own property it’s more speculative,” Pitney said.

In the past 10 years, Fontana has built numerous shopping centers and housing developments surrounding the 210 Freeway and Base Line.

There is plenty of room for more development in Fontana, but that does not necessarily mean the campaigns will be more expensive, Mayor Mark Nuaimi said.

“Typically, folks who are investing in the community or that have a partnership in the community, or are players in the community – they donate to campaigns,” Nuaimi said. “I don’t think because Fontana has more land available there are going to be more dollar donations.”

Historically, races in Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga bring in more contributions than Fontana, Nuaimi said.

“I don’t know if there’s really a correlation between the amount of contributions and the amount of land that’s developable,” Nuaimi said. “I know for me in my history on the City Council, I have received contributions from developers, but, if asked, I’ve probably been one of the hardest of the council members on development standards and increasing them.”

Upland is nearly built out but contributions from developers to city officials have not disappeared.

“I believe that contributions received from developers and business people alike have more to do in our case with the leadership and the direction that the city is going and the strides that we made over the last 10 years,” Mayor John Pomierski said.

Developers appreciate strong leadership when they are invested in the community, rather than the possibility of development, Pomierski said.

“In Upland’s case, no it’s not a correlation, because I have a lot of friends that I had long before I put on my political hat that are very supportive and, like I said, Upland is not a hot bed of square miles to build on,” Pomierski said.

Ontario Mayor Paul Leon contends developers and other groups donate to campaigns because they support the candidate’s leadership ability.

“It’s a difficult thing to contribute to a city that has no direction, that has no plan and ends up changing at the whims of the council,” Leon said.

It is in the best interest of the developers or any group to protect their investment in the community, Leon said.

“You want to make sure your investment doesn’t change – the parameters or regulation of your investment do not change over the duration of time it takes you get that development completed,” Leon said. “It wouldn’t make sense for you to contribute to the campaign of the unstable leadership.”

It’s not the opportunity for development that drives developers to Rancho Cucamonga – it’s the school system and the General Plan, Mayor Don Kurth said.

People move to Rancho Cucamonga in hope of giving their children a good education, Kurth said.

“So that puts pressure on housing prices and pushes them up because people want to come,” said Kurth, who also gave the city’s General Plan as a reason for developer participation in politics.

“That General Plan has been what put all of this in place and made the city what it is today,” Kurth said. “We’ve stuck to our guns over the years on quality developments, so even though developers squawk sometimes they want to develop in Rancho because it’s easier to sell their projects and hold it’s value.”

A reason for any group to make contributions to political campaigns would be to gain access to the politician.

“Access – that’s the key word,” Pitney said. “That a politician is much more likely to listen to a contributor than a non-contributor, with all other things being equal.”

However, contributions do not guarantee outcomes, but they can guarantee that the politician is going to listen, Pitney said.

“Again, it depends on what decision is before which governmental body,” Pitney said. “Elected officials do have a role to play in land use and consequently developers want to get their attention.”

Upland-based Lewis Group of Companies in the past several years has donated millions of dollars to political campaigns.

Lewis Group has residential and retail developments in Rancho Cucamonga, Upland, Fontana and Ontario. The company has contributed to local, state and school board races, and are working with 25 to 30 cities at any given time, said Randall Lewis, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Lewis.

“It’s common and it’s not just the development community,” Lewis said.

As far as campaign contributions go, developers are no different than any special interest group such as teachers, public employees or environmentalists, he said.

“It’s people who care about something who are going to look to see who are the candidates that represent similar viewpoints and who are the candidates that understand the issues,” Lewis said. “So for the point of view of our company, the things we’re going to look at will first be an attitude toward business.”

Several Southern California chapters of the Building Industry Association contribute to a political action committee set up to support certain candidates, said Frank Williams, chief executive officer of the Baldy View Chapter of BIA.

“Each chapter does have an election committee that will recommend to the PAC to support certain candidates and we basically support pro-business candidates,” Williams said.

The PAC has supported candidates strictly on a county and local level for years, he said.

“It’s like anything. It’s really a business decision foremost,” Williams said. “Generally, when you contribute to a candidate, they know that you have done that and sometimes it’s a way to get access to a decision- maker.”

The PAC includes BIA chapters in Orange, Riverside, Los Angeles, Ventura and Antelope Valley. This election, the PAC is supporting Gary Ovitt and Paul Biane for the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

The chapter is limited on resources due to the slow economy, so contributions range from $500 to $1,000 for each election cycle, Williams said.

Contributions from Lewis Group of Companies, too, will be less this campaign season.

“We’ve cut back a lot and I guess that will be the case for a while until the economy picks up,” Lewis said.

Cities were given a golden opportunity to develop their land along the foothills once the 210 Freeway was completed.

The portion of the freeway from La Verne to Rialto was finished in 2002. Numerous residential and retail developments in the area soon followed.

“Certainly, it’s rebalanced traffic flow. It allowed some of the flow on the 10 to move to the 210, so if you’re a commercial developer you’re interested in how many people are driving by your facility everyday,” said Richard Willson, a professor for the urban and regional planning department at Cal Poly Pomona.

The 210 Freeway “brought a lot more people into that corridor not only for local transportation but people going out to the desert and Vegas.”

Construction of the Colonies Crossroads shopping center and residential community started in 2003 and has brought in millions of dollars in tax revenue to the city.

The project’s developer, Rancho Cucamonga-based Colonies Partners LP, has donated to county supervisors as well as campaigns in Upland and Rancho Cucamonga.

“I would think that any project that came along the 210, you’d be stupid not to invite the new developers, or businesses if you will, to participate and support you,” Pomierski said.

Lewis Retail Centers, part of Lewis Group of Companies, constructed four shopping centers north of the 210 Freeway.

In 2005, Regency Centers Corporation opened a 300,000- square-foot retail center above the 210.

“Obviously, the 210 was planned for decades, so our General Plan and land-use policy was planned around that,” Nuaimi said.

“The fact that the 210 showed up has had a traumatic impact on Fontana and on the prosperity of Fontana.”

Since the freeway’s construction, the city’s economic development has expanded, which increased sales tax revenues and property values, Nuaimi said.

The cities that directly benefit from the construction of the 210 would have already included plans to build new homes and shopping centers in their general plans, Willson said.

“It takes a long time to plan and develop a freeway, so the 210 was on the regional transportation plan probably for decades before it was built,” Willson said. “So for the cities, they would have planned for that in their general plans and anticipated it.”

Although the city of Ontario does not touch the 210 Freeway, there has been a significant amount of development in the past several years from the Ontario Mills mall in the 1990s to the Citizen’s Business Bank Arena, which opened in 2008.

Ontario’s General Plan incorporated many development projects, some of which have already been completed.

“Therefore, if someone made an investment in a development based upon the Ontario Planning Department specific plan they are able to finish that project,” Leon said. “Because it’s been this way for quite a few years, the confidence level in the business community and the development community is such that they believe in the leadership and the direction of the leadership, they are more likely to be encouraged to contribute to our campaigns.”

By building numerous projects in the city, there was a hope that more retail and residential developments would soon follow, Leon said.

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