Generating economic activity at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino has proven to be difficult since the base closed in 1994. But Norton is now the scene of a proposal to replicate a successful airport in Texas that was built during the 1980s solely for industrial users.
In fact, the same developer of Alliance Texas in Fort Worth — Ross Perot Jr.'s Hillwood — is negotiating with base reuse officials to develop a logistics and maintenance airport along with a warehouse and manufacturing hub at Norton and on surrounding land. The proposed Alliance California development could eventually provide jobs for 6,000 to 8,000 people. However, the deal has proven difficult to consummate, and now a planned expansion of a rail hub that is part of the project is drawing concern because of the potential for trains tying up automobile traffic.
"This is an extremely complicated deal," said T. Milford Harrison, executive director of both the Inland Valley Development Agency (IVDA) and the San Bernardino International Airport Authority. "The things that complicate it so much are that we still have buildings full of asbestos and lead-based paint. We have ground contamination that still is not clear. … We have not received title to all of the property yet. And we have about six different agencies that have been granted part of the Air Force base for one public reason or another."
Both Harrison and John Magness, Hillwood's project director, said they expected to sign a master development agreement long ago. And both predicted a contract could be settled within a few months. In the meantime, Hillwood and the local entities have already worked out one agreement that allowed construction of a Kohl's department store warehouse. Other small agreements are on the table.
"We made a conscious decision about a year ago," said Magness, "to push ahead with development, bureaucracy be damned, because it's the right thing to do."
Everyone agrees that bringing jobs to San Bernardino is the right thing to do. When Norton closed, the community lost about 10,000 jobs. That economic blow followed Santa Fe Railroad's closure of a large maintenance facility in San Bernardino in 1992.
Since the base closure was announced in 1988, government agencies and the private sector have presented numerous proposals for site reuse. The largest operation to move to Norton is a Defense Department finance and accounting office. It employs 270 people, about half its peak, and federal officials are considering closing it altogether. Among the failed reuse ideas are a prison, a large facility for the homeless, a passenger airport, a small-business incubator, a jet repair business, housing and retail development.
"You have every kind of idea coming out there," said Robert Christman, chairman of the airport authority, vice chairman of the IVDA and a Loma Linda councilman. "I found it interesting how many times we dealt with developers who had lots of nice plans and ideas, but when it came time to wire in $50,000 for something, they didn't have the money."
These failed schemes make Hillwood's proposal all the more attractive because Hillwood has the capital and the experience to complete a large project, Christman said.
Thirteen years ago, Hillwood opened Alliance Texas in a pasture about 15 miles north of Fort Worth. Since then, the 9,600-acre facility has become the most successful logistics airport in the country. About 20,000 people work for 107 tenants in 21 million square feet of warehouse and industrial space. Hillwood also has 5,000 acres of housing, office and retail development nearby.
While Alliance Texas provides a model for Alliance California, the projects are quite different, Magness noted. Alliance Texas was a greenfield development with a substantial residential and retail component. The San Bernardino project would be an infill and brownfield development on a smaller location, and the sites would not necessarily be contiguous.
Still, the site is ideal for logistics operations and manufacturing, Magness said. Three freeways surround Norton. With some improvements, the airport could accommodate large cargo airplanes flying to and from Asia and Europe. And Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad plans to expand its existing intermodal facility.
A number of studies have pointed to the need for additional cargo handling capacity. The Southern California Association of Governments estimated the amount of air cargo in the region would triple from 2000 to 2025.
The proposed master development would allow Hillwood to develop about 800 acres of the closed base that are controlled by the IVDA. (Composed of three cities and San Bernardino County, the IVDA is a redevelopment agency whose project area covers 14,000 acres in a roughly three-mile radius around Norton.)
The master development "is most akin to a joint venture," said the IVDA's Harrison. "We put up the land, and they do the development."
A master development agreement would let IVDA and the airport authority settle many issues at one time, Christman said. It would encourage uniform development and prevent the agencies from having to negotiate with dozens of developers of small projects. Plus, a private entity with a profit motive is more likely to carry out the development, he said.
The sheer number of local agencies involved is a factor in everything at Norton. Representatives of San Bernardino, Colton, Loma Linda and San Bernardino County sit on the IVDA board. The airport authority has the same members, plus the City of Highland. The various local agencies have not always agreed about base reuse, as evidenced by the City of Redlands's decision to drop out of the airport authority.
The railroad proposal is one of the latest issues to cause friction. The proposed expansion of the intermodal facility could greatly increase train traffic, blocking busy San Bernardino surface streets a dozen times a day for up to seven minutes at a time. San Bernardino officials, who are processing an application from Burlington Northern Santa Fe, appear skeptical.
Harrison said the railroad project would be "a great benefit. But it would not be a great benefit if it compromises the quality of life."
This summer, Hillwood expects to complete a 650,000-square-foot warehouse for Kohl's. And Hillwood is trying to stir interest in more warehouses and industrial facilities, and the airport.
The airport has received a $2.5 million Federal Aviation Administration grant to fund remodeling of some hangars and the terminal, and it has a $6.3 million FAA grant to rebuild the 10,000-foot-long runways. The airport authority also intends to prepare a master plan.
T. Milford Harrison, Inland Valley Development Agency and San Bernardino International Airport Authority, (909) 382-4105.
Robert Christman, IVDA, SBIAA and City of Loma Linda, (909) 307-3811.
John Magness, Hillwood, (909) 382-0023.
Hillwood website: http://www.hillwood.com