Two decades ago, Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino was the center of a vibrant military community, pumping millions of dollars into the region each year through more than 10,000 jobs.
But in 1988, the base — named for a young pilot who perished in World War II — was slated for closure, sending the city into an economic downward spiral from which it has yet to fully recover.
“When the base closed, there was a tremendous exodus of good, stable people,” said San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris. “In their place came a lot people from the margins.”
The jobless rate in the region swelled to more than 12 percent during the years after the base closure. And as military personnel left the region, many of the city’s core neighborhoods emptied.
Even today, San Bernardino households within one mile of Carousel Mall — the focal point for downtown redevelopment efforts — have a median income of $20,480, less than half that of the Inland region as a whole.
Officials have struggled for more than a decade to revive the city and former base property from a state of economic malaise. They have had some success. In the past five years, more than 2,000 jobs have come to the base through redevelopment projects spearheaded by Hillwood Development Corp.
Next month, Stater Bros. Markets will move its headquarters from Colton to its new 162-acre distribution center and corporate office at the former base. The complex eventually will employ 2,100 workers.
However, attempts to turn San Bernardino International Airport, a major feature of the former base property, into a regional aviation hub have not been as successful. Numerous aviation businesses over the years have failed after launching operations there, and the airport has long tried fruitlessly to attract passenger and cargo flights.
Still, officials remain optimistic that they can bring flights and jobs back to the airport. Within the past year, 400 highly skilled aircraft maintenance jobs have been added at the airport’s hangar complex, and the officials say more are on the way.
Morris long has called the airport the key to San Bernardino’s economic recovery and the center of its next job-creation engine. Other civic leaders share his view.
“Virtually all of my lifetime in public affairs, Norton Air Force Base has been the center of economic interest for the entire region,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands. “At this very moment, we are right on the edges of that secondary economic explosion.”
Scientists and Engineers
But Lorna Kenney, who worked at the base for 24 years, said it will be difficult to revive the “magic” of the old base.
“I don’t think you can replace the 10,000 people,” said Kenny, who left the base when it closed in 1994. “These were all highly skilled, highly trained technicians. It was a much higher level of skill than the box workers in these warehouses.”
Along with Air Force personnel, thousands of civilian scientists and engineers worked at the base. Those well-paid jobs had a tremendous economic and social impact on the community, she said.
Jim Sikra worked as a civilian director at the Ballistic Missile Organization on the base until Norton closed.
Sikra said his family spent a lot of time at the base, shopping at the commissary, going to the movies and dining at the restaurants.
“It certainly left a void for those of us who were there,” he said.
When the base closed, the majority of the workers were transferred to other Air Force bases. Some retired, and others began new careers.
Today, new warehouses stand beside old buildings that the military had used. Other Air Force structures were razed to make way for the 4.2 million square feet of warehouse space. Fortune 500 companies including Kohl’s and Mattel as well as Pep Boys, one of the nation’s top 800 companies, operate there, employing approximately 1,500 workers.
Construction is about to begin on 2.7 million square feet of warehouse space at the former Palm Meadows Golf Course, where the military officers used to play. John Magness, senior vice president of Hillwood, estimates that the project will be finished by the middle of next year and could employ at least 2,000 more workers once it is completed.
With the combination of Hillwood’s projects and Stater Bros.’ new distribution center, jobs on the former base site could reach more than 5,000 in the next few years.
“There are not as many jobs right now as we would have liked to have,” said Don Rogers, interim director of the San Bernardino International Airport Authority and the Inland Valley Development Agency, charged with redeveloping the former base land that surrounds the airport.
“My disappointment is that we didn’t bring in any manufacturing jobs,” he said. “Whether another redevelopment company would have pushed for manufacturing jobs and just waited it out, I don’t know. We’ll probably never be able to replace all of the 10,000 jobs that were lost.”
Officials are still pinning their hopes on the airport to replace more of those lost base jobs.
“The large warehousing facilities don’t employ workers in the way office buildings do,” Morris said.
“So the need is to have a mix. That will come, in my view, with the inauguration of the airport.”