An FBI agent loads documents into the back of a truck from offices at San Bernardino International Airport on Sept. 21, 2011.
BY DUG BEGLEY AND
KIMBERLY PIERCEALLSTAFF WRITERS
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Published: 14 July 2012 04:11 PM
As recently as the mid-1980s, San Bernardino was the envy of other Inland cities, able to brag about its military base teeming with well-paid workers, the nearby steel industry and a vibrant downtown.
One by one, those economic and social engines disappeared. Despite spending years trying to boost the city’s stature with new developments, even a new airport, San Bernardino never recovered from steady decline, a fact underlined this week by the city’s decision to seek bankruptcy protection.
When Doug Miller was growing up in the 1960s with three brothers and his parents in a small house in Pomona, going to San Bernardino meant something. His father, a truck driver, used to take the family there once a month to visit relatives and sometimes see a movie.
“It was such a different city,” Miller, 54, said on Wednesday, pointing at vacant shops downtown and remembering past lunches and the spot where he said he saw Dean Martin hop into a waiting car.
Business officials and residents blamed a host of setbacks on finally bringing San Bernardino down. Lost jobs, lost development projects and lost time to political infighting are some of the causes.
“The employment base of San Bernardino took a tsunami hit on jobs,” said Stater Bros. Holdings chairman and CEO Jack Brown. “Kind of like a fighter in the 14th round who has been pummeled in the first 14 rounds.”
As San Bernardino floundered, other Inland cities flourished. Ontario built hotels and meeting spaces, such as the city’s convention center. Riverside renovated the historic Mission Inn and brought crowds back downtown to spend money. Rancho Cucamonga developed Victoria Gardens.
Other Southern California cities such as Pasadena lured residents and trendy shops to their historic cores.
Brown — a “proud native son of San Bernardino” — and other believers said San Bernardino can rebound.
“Yes, San Bernardino can come back if our leaders and the public support what needs to be done,” Brown said.
It’s just going to take more than talk.
“We have made about a $500 million commitment with our distribution center,” Brown said of his company’s homegrown headquarters and warehouse operation in eastern San Bernardino. “That speaks more loudly than any words I can say.”
Following the loss of an estimated 20,000 jobs, including 10,000 positions citywide when Norton Air Force Base closed in 1994, city officials struggled to replace the workforce. Well-paying jobs mean workers are in the city spending money and paying sales taxes.
The base’s closure was a $1.9 billion hit to the region’s annual economy, according to a study commissioned by the San Bernardino International Airport Authority.
“A city lives on sales and property taxes,” said Carole Beswick, former mayor of Redlands and CEO of Inland Action, a group of influential business officials who work to spur economic development.
Since those jobs left, city officials have spent the last 18 years stumbling through major economic proposals, with few bearing fruit. Efforts were made to make San Bernardino a high-tech industry and research town, or an international trade hub. Developers and other businesspeople have chased amusement parks, and even once promoted an idea to flood a blighted area north of downtown to create a manmade lake ringed with high-end housing and shops.
Some of the greatest missteps and the city’s rare successes have come with the former air base itself. Among the latter, warehouse development by Texas-based Hillwood creating more than 4,000 jobs according to recent estimates. Another 1,000 workers will come once a nearly 1 million-square-foot center for internet retailer Amazon opens later this year.
“Hillwood has done a bang-up job of building out the property at Norton,” Beswick said.
But on the other side of the sprawling air base, it’s another story.
It has cost $158.7 million in public money to build San Bernardino International Airport, including a passenger terminal with no passengers, because the airport’s staff and its board have failed to land an airline.
Carved on one entire wall inside the terminal’s vacant concourse is a quote, that hasn’t quite come true, from the late Bill Leonard Sr., a former state transportation commissioner who handled most of the airport’s real estate dealings early on.
“On this very site of a former military base benefiting our community with its economic prowess while it served our nation for over a half century, we have converted the misfortune handed to us by the loss of a military base into a greater opportunity as all have strived to assure its success one step at a time,” the quote says.
Pilots of small planes and charter flights use the facility, along with aircraft businesses that do little to create the number of jobs San Bernardino lost.
The governing board for the airport, which includes elected leaders from the city of San Bernardino, relied on Scot Spencer, an individual with no prior experience developing an airport. Spencer, who was imprisoned in the mid-1990s for a fraud conviction related to the bankruptcy of Braniff Airlines, was picked to make San Bernardino International Airport a high-traffic travel destination. Without soliciting any other bids, the board hired him in 2007 to oversee building a commercial airport.
Today, the airport’s governing board is mired in legal battles with Spencer’s companies and the FBI is investigating activities at the airport. Agents searched airport offices and Spencer’s home in September 2011.
The airport’s slower than expected launch also can be tied to the larger economy.
The national recession constricted people’s spending money and led airlines to reduce flights.
“Part of the plan was as Ontario (International Airport) continued to grow. It was projected they would reach a peak and San Bernardino could attract a commercial airline,” Brown said.
Instead, the opposite happened and Ontario passenger counts dropped dramatically, and San Bernardino sat vacant.
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