Pavement Politics: How developers influence politics in California's Inland Empire

Part 1: One real estate developer shapes the future of Bloomington

Pavement Politics: How developers influence politics in California's Inland Empire
Following the demolition of Locust St. in Bloomington, CA, a damaged mailbox foregrounds the newly purchased nursery so construction for the Bloomington Business Park Specific Plan may begin. Photo by Fernanda Durazo.

By Anthony Victoria and Christopher Salazar

For years Angela McClain says she was frustrated with the lack of improvement and investment in the unincorporated San Bernardino County town of Bloomington.

McClain is a member of the Bloomington Municipal Advisory Council (MAC) and founder of local nonprofit organization Olive Branch Development and Empowerment Services. She shared that residents in the area have desired more revenue to help fund paved sidewalks, more Sheriff’s deputies and other essential public infrastructure.

In the last decade, developers have convinced elected officials—specifically members of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors—to adopt large warehouse projects to help address this frustration and to bring jobs to the region.

McClain says one developer in particular has helped give back to the Bloomington community. 

She says Tim Howard of Howard Industrial Partners, a Newport Beach based real estate company who has developed over 9 million square feet of warehouses in the Inland Empire, has a “big heart, regardless of what people think.”

Howard and his company in the past have helped Olive Branch with community toy drives. The Bloomington Little League also received at least one donation from Howard Industrial Partners. 

“Nobody’s looking into what he’s doing for the community,” said McClain.

Other residents disagree. At issue is the Bloomington Business Park Specific Plan, a 213-acre project that will demolish one school and 138 homes, displacing around 530 people, in order to build a warehouse cluster over 50 football fields in size. 

Ana Carlos is a school teacher, mother and homeowner. She’s lived in Bloomington for 12 years. Carlos is also one of the co-founders of the Concerned Neighbors of Bloomington, a local group who advocates for environmental justice. 

Carlos says since Howard received approval from the County to build his 213 acre Bloomington project in 2022, people working for him have attempted to divide and intimidate residents into moving out and selling their land so workers could begin construction. 

“For years now, neighbors have said that these real estate people or people who work for Howard [Industrial Partners] would come and say, ‘Well, you're the only one holding this project back, you're the only neighbor that hasn't sold and imagine how your neighbors are going to feel when they find out that you're the one holding this project back.’”

Carlos and the Concerned Neighbors of Bloomington started sorting through campaign finance forms of school board members in an attempt to see if some dots connected.

“We were very surprised to look into the school board and find out that Howard Industrial Partners was also giving someone on the school board campaign contributions,” said Carlos. “We told ourselves, ‘What's going on here?’” 

Carlos is referring to developer-driven campaign contributions that can involve deceptively small amounts of money. A collaborative project between the Frontline Observer and Pitzer College’s Robert Redford Conservancy is attempting to address the questions asked by residents like Carlos. By searching through campaign disclosure forms available through online public records, we learned that Howard Industrial Partners has donated $67,348 to the election campaigns of at least two elected officials representing residents in Bloomington since 2016. 

From 2020 to 2024, Supervisor Joe Baca Jr. received $39,498 from Tim Howard and people connected to his development company. Dan Flores, who ran for the same seat, and who sits on the Colton Joint Unified School District, received $27,850 from 2016 to 2020.  

According to California’s Secretary of State Office, people who run for public office and raise funds through campaign committees are required under the Political Reform Act to disclose finances on a semi-annual basis. Under the Act, individual residents, nonprofits organizations, business companies and other contributors are allowed to raise funds for candidates they support. Local election officers are allowed to adjust or strengthen campaign rules under the law. 

Donations like these are a small symbol of the relationships warehouse related developers garner through their campaign contributions to elected officials. Bloomington residents allege that warehouse projects are effectively rubber stamped, diminishing meaningful community engagement within an already compromised system.

Howard Industrial Partners, Joe Baca, and Dan Flores did not respond to multiple requests to comment on these allegations, their development activity or their support of elected officials in Bloomington and the broader Inland Empire.

During a San Bernardino County Planning Commission meeting back in September 2022, the company’s owner Tim Howard shared that the Bloomington Business Park Specific Plan would raise the bar for the unincorporated community. He affirmed then that the project met the California Attorney General’s best practices on warehouse construction. 

“What we’re planning in Bloomington raises the bar for our competitors and ourselves,” Howard told the commission. “We have embraced our neighbors, embraced some of the community organizations that are active, including the local little league.”

A mid-size John Deere excavator collecting construction debris. Photo by Fernanda Durazo.

But the Little League is a weak foil against the wholesale demolition of a neighborhood. Resident opposition to the project is vocal and ongoing, and points to a sharp division between resident desires and decision maker loyalties. One researcher says campaign contributions are both a symbol of this fracturing and a vehicle that drives the wedge further. And it extends beyond Bloomington. 

In 2021, following a concerted effort on the part of students and grassroots organizers to save a 219-acre section of prime farmland in nearby Ontario that developers hoped to rezone and convert into warehousing, then Pitzer College senior Ian Ragen was inspired to look into the matter further. He conducted applied research in the spring of 2022 investigating the role of campaign finance on warehouse expansion in the city of Ontario. Using publicly available records, Ragen found that warehouse related donors and those who benefit from warehouse construction contributed $473,732 to Ontario council members Debra Dorst-Porada, Alan Wapner, Paul Leon, Jim Bowman and Ruben Valencia. 

For Ragen, the cozy relationship of developers and elected officials indicated that the interests of warehouse related developers mattered more than those of the people most affected: local residents.

“The loyalty of some city council members and board of supervisors in both Riverside and San Bernardino County has shifted away from residents and toward developers who bring investment—–and also take profits away from the local area,” said Ragen. “Those are the bricks that make up the warehouse boom. The cement is the developers’ support for local causes that wind up currying favor with the public and elected officials. Essentially it’s the warehouse form of greenwashing.”

‘They use zoning to basically destroy a community’ 

Felipe Ortiz discovered his own sense of belonging within the unincorporated San Bernardino County community of Bloomington. 

Ortiz has helped organize ‘cabalgatas,’ or traditional horseback rides that celebrate the charro cowboy lifestyle many Mexican families enjoy. His children and neighbors use the cabalgatas as a way to celebrate birthday celebrations or contribute to baby showers and weddings.  

“What we do here is great because a lot of young children and people come together to celebrate our roots,” Ortiz said in his native Spanish. “This is something we strive to leave behind for the generations to come.” 

On the morning of January 24, Ortiz went outside and saw a notice secured to the home’s chain link fence. He shares that the front of the property was also padlocked. The piece of paper had a number and a message. It read, “Need access? Ask for Tim Howard.”

Bloomington resident Felipe Ortiz holds the letter left by Howard Industrial Partners. Photo by Anthony Victoria.

A surveillance video shared online shows that on February 15, a bulldozer charged toward Ortiz’s property. The footage shows the bulldozer knocking down the chain link fence. 

Ortiz says his wife and three children were all inside the property. 

Later, Ortiz learned through a local environmental justice group, the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice (PC4EJ), that PAMA Management–Ortiz’s landlord–had sold the property to Howard Industrial Partners. 

Michael Tunney, vice president of Howard Industrial Partners, said in an email that, “The property at 11062 Locust Avenue was sold in December 2023 and is currently being occupied without permission. 

Earthjustice, a legal nonprofit organization, has sued San Bernardino County on behalf of PC4EJ, the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) and The Center for Biological Diversity over the Bloomington Business Park Specific Plan. The organizations argue the County failed to consider health and air quality impacts from diesel truck traffic before approving the large project. 

Another lawsuit from the Western Center on Law and Poverty on behalf of PC4EJ, CCAEJ, The Center for Biological Diversity, and Sierra Club is additionally focusing on the disproportionate impact of this project on Latino communities and individuals. 

Andrea Vidaurre is the senior policy analyst with PC4EJ. She argues that the game plan of developers is straightforward: developers come into a place and convince agencies to rezone residential land into industrial space. 

“They use zoning to basically destroy a community,” says Vidaurre. “It’s a common theme in the IE.”  

Vidaurre says if the Bloomington area was “rich and white”, the Bloomington Business Park Specific Plan wouldn’t even be on the table. 

“It’s because they’re from a low-income Latino community, whose culture and heritage aren’t valued in the same way,” Vidaurre said.

What does the future hold for Bloomington?

Because of the Bloomington Business Park Specific Plan, Zimmerman Elementary School will be demolished and rebuilt at a different site about one mile away from its current location on Linden Avenue. The new site will border Santa Ana, Cedar and Larch Avenues on a 28-acre plot of land owned by the school district. However, Colton Joint Unified School District spokeswoman Katie Orloff said in an email that, "The Board of Education has not made a final selection yet."

“The District is carrying out the relocation of Zimmerman Elementary School independent of the Bloomington Business Park project,” Orloff said. “While we do not have control or input into the decision to build the Bloomington Business Park project or its impacts on the neighborhood, it is always our goal to pursue our best option available to us in providing for our schools, students and staff.”

According to Tunney, “The project will replace an out-of-date school campus built during the World War 2-era with a new state-of-the-art school—the first to be built in the Bloomington community in 80 years.” 

Joaquin Castillejos is an organizer with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ). He grew up in Bloomington and has taken pride in encouraging people like Felipe Ortiz and other horse riders to use cabalgatas as a form of resistance against developers like Howard. 

He likens the developer to Amazon and other large corporations who have leased warehouses in Bloomington. Castillejos claims that Howard Industrial Partners, like Amazon, employs not just campaign contributions but public relations strategies to influence local organizations into supporting warehousing. He referenced a leaked Amazon memo detailing a coordinated effort to advance the company’s expansion plans into the area. 

“If a large corporation like Amazon is employing these PR strategies to control the narrative, there is no doubt Howard Industrial Partners has been and is continuing to do the same by donating to major community spaces.”

Meanwhile, Ortiz’s home, like so many in the neighborhood, is now at risk of sitting vacant or being reduced to a pile of rubble. Ortiz says he’s likely to leave his rented property by April 13 and sell off his horses. 

As he continues to face the inevitable, the father of three shares he’s heartbroken. 

“They’re kicking me out,” said Ortiz, fighting back tears. “I haven’t been eating because of the worry. My 13-year-old son says to sell his horse. He tells me, ‘family comes first, then horses.’ This makes me feel really bad.”

Update 4/3/2024: This story has been updated to reflect a response from Howard Industrial Partners regarding the Bloomington Business Park Specific Plan and Felipe Ortiz’s living situation. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Howard Industrial Partners is based in Newport Beach. Howard Industrial Partners is based in Orange.

This news story is the first in a series that will investigate how developers are shaping politics and land use in California’s Inland Empire. Support for this reporting project was made possible through Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media and Rita Allen Foundation’s Civic Science Collaborative Journalism Grant.

Audio reporting was done through KVCR News by Anthony Victoria, who is also the founder of the Frontline Observer. Additional reporting was done by Pitzer College students Journey Lipscomb, Anthony Shing and Diego Tamayo. Research support provided by the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability and Pitzer College alum Ian Ragen.