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2020 will forever be remembered as the year of COVID-19

The pandemic dominated the local news, but there were other stories. Ontario International welcomed new service and a new FedEx facility, the High Desert got a close examination from some of its residents, Riverside got a new mayor and Montclair revealed a major renovation plan for its struggling shopping mall.

Usually, at the end of a year, there’s a debate – or at least a discussion – about what was the biggest news story of the year. That was not the case in 2020.

In the Inland Empire, like everywhere else, the Coronavirus pandemic dominated the news like no other event has in years. Probably nothing since World War II has disrupted so many lives for such a significant period of time.

The virus, first identified in January in Wuhan, China, was declared a pandemic in March by the World Health Organization. It first showed up in the Inland region early that month, when the first cases in Riverside and San Bernardino counties were identified. 

At that point, the two-county region was beset by the same events that happened virtually everywhere else in the United States.

All but the most vital businesses  – restaurants, grocery stores, and service stations – were forced to close. Restaurants were restricted to take-out and delivery, then were allowed outdoor seating if they could manage it. But that was rescinded about a month ago when the virus underwent a resurgence even more devastating than its first appearance, forcing some restaurants to close altogether.

Curfews were implemented, large gatherings were banned, and the local tourist industry stayed down.

Movie theaters were forced to shut down, sporting events were canceled – or played in an empty venue – and religious services were suspended. Amidst all of this, people were required by state law to wear surgical masks or other face coverings and stand at least six feet apart, a practice that soon became known as social distancing.

Perhaps the first good news came in December when healthcare officials began administering vaccine shots in many parts of the world, including the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Both Riverside and San Bernardino counties expected to receive vaccines by mid-December.

But the battle is far from finished, and the damage inflicted so far has been horrific:  as of Dec. 14, more than 1.5 million Coronavirus cases had been identified in California, including nearly 120,000 cases in Riverside County and close to 128,000 cases in San Bernardino County.

By that date, the death toll in the two-county region topped 2,800, and intensive care units in both counties were at, or very near, full capacity. COVID-19 delivered a major hit to Ontario International Airport in 2020. 

From January through November, a little more than 2.3 million passengers traveled through the airport, a 53.7 percent drop compared with the first 11 months of 2019. 

Fortunately, Ontario International made up some of that lost ground with the increased amount of cargo it carried, a direct result of the boom in online shopping created by the pandemic. Freight shipments totaled more than 804,000 tons during the first 11 months of the year, nearly 20 percent more than the first 11 months of 2019.

The airport also welcomed new, or revived, service from Frontier, Delta, Southwest, and Hawaiian Airlines, and FedEx Express unveiled a $100 million facility in the northwest corner of the airport.

Opened in November, the 251,000-square-foot project sits on more than 50 acres and is nearly three times the size of the previous space FedEx occupied at Ontario International. The facility is expected to employ nearly 500 people. 

CVB Financial Corp., the parent company of Citizens Business Bank, got a new chief executive officer in 2020.

David A. Brager took over as head of the Ontario-based financial institution in March. He replaced Christopher D. Myers, who stepped down as president and chief executive officer.

A 17-year CVB Financial employee, Brager was executive vice president and sales division manager before he replaced Myers. He has more than 30 years of experience in banking.

Nordstrom Inc., the department store chain famous for its high-end merchandise and customer service, closed its stores at the Galleria at Tyler in Riverside and Montclair Place.

The closures, announced in May, were two of 16 regular store closings the chain announced this year. 

An increase in online shopping and the COVID-19 pandemic were among the reasons the company decided to shut down the properties. Neither Inland Empire store is expected to reopen, according to company officials.

In August, Cal State University San Bernardino launched its School of Entrepreneurship, the first of its kind on the west coast and one of only 15 worldwide.

The school is designed for students who want to start their own business, said Mike Stull, an entrepreneurship professor at Cal State San Bernardino and the new school’s director.

Enrollment is expected to reach 500 students in five years.

“Entrepreneurship is unique, and it’s becoming accepted as an academic discipline,” Stull said. “If you’re a school, instead of just part of a department, it’s easier to chart your own course and create your own programs.”

The Cal State San Bernardino School of Entrepreneurship oversees eight academic programs and has 20 full and part-time faculty. Most of whom already teach at the business school, according to Stull.

Rusty Bailey stepped down as Riverside’s ending a 13-year career as an elected official with the city, including eight as mayor.

Bailey, who was first elected to the city council in 2007, declined to run for a third term this year so he could become chief executive officer of Path of Life Ministries, which is dedicated to helping homeless people. 

Bailey said goodbye to his fellow council members and city staff on Dec. 3 during a virtual event held in the council chambers at city hall. Patricia Lock Dawson was sworn in to replace Bailey on Dec. 8.

In September, Montclair approved the Montclair Place Specific District Plan, a 20-year project that city officials hope will transform the struggling shopping mall into an outdoor shopping facility.

Plans call for the demolition of the mall’s interior, followed by construction of free-standing retail buildings, residential towers, a 100 to 200-room hotel, parks, and several office buildings.

The project’s main feature, The Rembla, will be a tree-lined street running down the center of the mall. Modeled after a street in Barcelona, Spain, city officials hope The Rembla will help make Montclair Place -formerly Montclair Plaza – pedestrian-friendly.

“Twenty years” was attached to the plan because it’s expected to take at least that long to implement it. The cost of the renovation has not been disclosed.

In September, Amazon opened another fulfillment center in the Inland Empire, this time in Beaumont.

The 640,000-square-foot facility near Interstate 10 and the 60 Freeway employs more than 1,000 full-time associates who manage small items, including books, electronics, school supplies, and home goods.

“We are pleased to officially welcome Amazon to the Beaumont community,” Beaumont City Manager Todd Parton said in a statement. “The opening of this cutting-edge facility solidifies Beaumont as a pivotal location within the inland empire for international trade and commerce.” 

In November, Cummings Auto Group in San Bernardino purchased the Nissan dealership in the San Bernardino Auto Mall.

Cliff Cummings, head of Nissan Auto Group, plans to make major renovations to the property.

“This is an exciting opportunity for us and the City of San Bernardino,” Cummings said in a statement when the transaction was announced. “This will require a significant investment of time and resources to get where we want to be eventually, but I see nothing but upside to this acquisition.”

Cummings Auto Group now owns three dealerships at the San Bernardino Auto Mall, which is next to Interstate 215: Toyota of San Bernardino, Subaru of San Bernardino, and Nissan of San Bernardino.

In October, Joe Brady, longtime Victorville-based commercial real estate broker, unveiled his study on the High Desert, probably the most detailed analysis of the region.

Keys to a Better Tomorrow: The High Desert Survey seeks to find out if High Desert residents think the region is a good place to live and raise a family.

Released during a livestream event, Brady was accompanied onscreen by the report’s two authors, longtime Inland Empire economist John Husing and Barbara Sirotnik, director of the Institute of Applied Research & Policy Analysis at Cal State San Bernardino. 

All three spent three months in 2019 developing questionnaires and setting up a website. Their effort was rewarded when approximately 13,000 High Desert residents responded to the survey.

Fifty-five percent called the High Desert a “very good” or “fairly good” place to live, although many respondents expressed concerns about crime and traffic.

“Most of the people who responded challenged the status quo, which is what we were looking for,” Brady said shortly after the livestream. “We did this when the economy was doing very well.”

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