News Article | 1/4/2005

Hopeful Signs

More than a decade after Norton Air Force Base closed, 2005 could be the year San Bernardino’s been waiting for in terms of airport renewal.

Developers and city officials see dramatic change in the year ahead. Though it’s uncertain exactly when the turnaround will come, all factors are pointing to a confluence of events this year that will culminate in the true conversion of Norton.

Each year, it seems, officials have peered into the crystal ball to see if this was the year the airport’s potential would be realized. But this year, a combination of variables could come to a head.

A decade of negotiations, remediation, environmental cleanup and planning are coming to fruition just as economic forces are pushing development in the valley eastward toward San Bernardino International Airport.

Call it serendipity, but not much could have happened until everything was lined up. Though some have felt frustrated over the seeming lack of progress as one after another ambitious though ill-fated project fell through an ice-skating rink, a hotel, a world trade center redevelopment of Norton has hinged on timing.

And as industrial development has gobbled up land, pushing ever eastward, it has converged on San Bernardino just as the Air Force has finished transferring most of the land for development, and as the Inland Valley Development Authority has benefited from retaining a master developer. Many factors held up reconversion of the base to civilian use a crumbling runway; dilapidated hangars; loading docks that didn’t match up to civilian trucks; pollution issues, including asbestos, lead-based paint and trichloroethylene, and, last but not least, a price that was prohibitive.

Despite all the problems, the Air Force insisted on $52 million for the headaches. It was only years later, after complaints from numerous communities that the asking price for old bases was too high, that the Air Force relented.

But the original asking price still was a major stumbling block to successful reuse of the base.

Nonetheless, the conversion of Norton finally is taking shape, thanks largely to the IVDA’s partnership with Hillwood. To wit, the yet-to-open $200 million Stater Bros. headquarters and Pep Boys warehouse, as well as Kohl’s regional distribution facility and Mattel’s giant warehouse.

Hillwood Senior Vice President John Magness sees a “phenomenal’ opportunity for development in the coming years with a mix of aircraft maintenance, cargo and military contracts. Even the recent loss of DHL to March Air Force Base in Riverside won’t preclude cargo operations in San Bernardino once Ontario International has built out.

Still, hopes are up for San Bernardino International, and excitement is in the air. The surrounding community has waited a long time for the airport’s rebirth. May 2005 be the year we’ve all looked forward to.