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Inland Empire: Where the L.A. Dream Landed

Times Staff Writer

Denise Entner moved to the Inland Empire last year to get more house for her money. But the commute from Upland to her job in Orange County, sometimes nearly two hours each way, was no bargain.

Fortunately, Entner landed a health care management position in Ontario that cut her commute to 20 minutes, giving her more time with her husband and three sons.

“Now I’m able to cook dinner and we eat at home together,” she said. “I’m also saving $200 a month on gas and my car insurance payments dropped 18%.”

The Inland Empire’s era as just a quiet bedroom community is ending.

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The region, often seen as a manufacturing and transportation hub, with less-expensive homes for those willing to commute to Los Angeles and Orange counties, is rapidly moving beyond its blue-collar roots into a more urbane future.

Increasingly, Western Riverside and San Bernardino counties are featuring the type of upscale houses, stores and entertainment long found in Los Angeles and other coastal enclaves. White-collar professionals such as Entner are finding attractive jobs there, no longer commuting westward. Tall office buildings are sprouting, along with more $1-million-plus homes.

The region’s median income now surpasses that of Los Angeles County. It is creating more jobs than Orange and San Diego counties are creating put together. Riverside and San Bernardino counties boast more residents than Oregon.

“The L.A. dream still exists, it just moved east,” said Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who writes frequently about California. “Ontario is transitioning into what Los Angeles once was, with both white collar and blue collar.”

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The Inland Empire, said Kotkin, “is keeping Southern California from really hollowing out its middle class. It captures people before they would head to Arizona or Nevada” for more affordable living.

While the region’s Coachella Valley towns, such as Palm Springs and Indian Wells, have long sported pricey housing for the well-to-do, top drawer residences are now popping up in rapidly urbanizing Inland Empire neighborhoods just east of Los Angeles County.

For instance, the median home price is $780,000 in Chino Hills, a prosperous bedroom community on the western edge of San Bernardino County. The median income of the city’s 75,000 residents surpasses that of Beverly Hills.

Perhaps nowhere is the region’s economic evolution more evident than in Ontario.

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The heart of the city’s main thoroughfare will soon be redeveloped into a shopping and housing complex. Passenger traffic at Ontario International Airport is approaching that of Orange County’s John Wayne Airport. The city has actually run out of industrial land to develop.

A new indoor arena from the developer of Staples Center is being planned as a future home to large-scale sports and entertainment events. The arena also is being discussed as a possible home for a Los Angeles Lakers minor league basketball team.

“If we had our own media market, we would have major league” athletic teams in the region, Ontario City Manager Gregory Devereaux said.

To be sure, the Inland Empire is far from boasting the glitz of its coastal neighbors. Orange County, which decades ago was also known for expansive agricultural fields, is much farther along the glamour curve. Don’t look for a television show called “The IE” anytime soon.

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The Inland Empire also is seeing the challenges of rapid growth: increased traffic, noise and smog, along with political battles over land use and the need to develop more roads, schools and other essentials.

The region’s economic evolution is seen as the inevitable next step in its long-running growth. The Inland Empire grew rapidly over two decades largely because land and homes were more available and affordable than in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

That particularly attracted industrial businesses seeking low-cost land for manufacturing, and retailers and shipping companies seeking inexpensive transportation hubs or warehouse space.

Now, the former agricultural plain has become big enough to sustain its own economy, attracting professionals such as lawyers and accountants who used to serve the area from offices on the coast.

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That expanding, educated workforce is an attraction for such employers as Pasadena-based mortgage lender IndyMac Bancorp., which quadrupled its office space in Ontario last fall.

“By growing, we can attract and retain employees from the talent pool located in all those new rooftops,” said Dale Lazerson, IndyMac vice president of corporate real estate.

Leigh Hutchins, chief of operations for North American Medical Management, the Ontario company that hired Denise Entner from Upland, said her company can “capture people who live out here but have to commute. A lot of people we hire are looking to end that drive.”

Other employers, such as financial planning firm Independent Capital Management Inc., are seeking to cash in on the region’s growth. Division Manager Michael Ferrera relocated his office from Los Angeles County to Ontario more than a year ago and has since tripled his staff.

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“We felt Ontario was the right place to reach quality candidates from the Inland Empire, and it has turned out to be so,” Ferrera said. “And there are great opportunities to work with new businesses here.”

The move also put Ferrera closer to his home in Fontana, where he and his wife are raising three children. “It’s a very easy commute now,” he said.

Total employment in Ontario more than doubled from about 40,700 in 1991 to 91,000 in 2004 while the total payroll tripled to $3.1 billion -- reflecting growth in higher-paying jobs. Much of the hiring reflected the region’s standing as an industrial powerhouse and facilitator of international trade.

Such job growth is driving housing prices upward, narrowing the gap with coastal areas.

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That’s particularly true in Ontario. The median price of new and resale houses there jumped to $414,500 in February from $138,500 in 2000, according to research firm Dataquick Information Services. That compares to $506,000 in March for Los Angeles County and $617,000 in February for Orange County.

While no longer so cheap, the Inland Empire still offers buyers more for their money, said economist John Husing.

“Say you’re 35 years old, well-educated, with a family. If you buy the house in Orange County, Los Angeles or San Diego that you think you deserve, you’re broke,” Husing said.

Ontario is doing more to attract residents desiring the lifestyle and amenities of a metropolis.

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Construction of a big-city style mixed-use project will get underway by September on the city’s historic main thoroughfare, Euclid Avenue. Three blocks near City Hall will be demolished to make way for a $200-million complex of stores, apartments and condominiums.

“We are trying to develop a neighborhood,” said Jerry Snyder, president of J.H. Snyder Co., which is developing the project.

Ontario already offers one of the state’s top tourist attractions: Ontario Mills, an enormous indoor shopping center that draws 24 million people to its outlet stores annually. In nearby Rancho Cucamonga is Victoria Gardens, an even newer, higher-end shopping center.

The city hopes to attract more visitors with an 11,000-seat arena, where sports and entertainment presenter AEG will operate a smaller version of its Staples Center in Los Angeles. The $55-million venue -- construction is set to begin this fall for a 2008 opening -- is slated to house minor league hockey, basketball and perhaps an arena football team, said Dana Warg, senior vice president. It is also expected to be a major concert hall.

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“What’s playing at the Greek Theater or Universal Amphitheater could play there,” said Warg. “It’s going to be a great market for family shows.”

The venue is part of Piemonte at Ontario Center, a 1-million-square-foot mixed-use center set to start construction in May. It will include a five-story office building, hotel, stores, restaurants and condominiums.

“A tremendous amount of space will be added in the next few years, and land values are going through the roof,” said Newport Beach commercial real estate broker Kevin Hayes Jr. of Cresa Partners, which is contemplating opening an office in the Inland Empire. “It would be shortsighted of us not to consider going there.”


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