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Part Two: Barstow hopes BNSF’s mega-project will provide an economic lift

Don Brown doesn’t hold back when asked how much he expects Barstow International Gateway, BNSF Railway Co.’s planned 4,500-acre rail yard and intermodal facility, will transform the High Desert city.

The project better known as BIG, is a “game changer,” not just for Barstow but the High Desert, Brown said.

“Just look at the cities that have grown because of logistics,” said Brown, president of Lee & Associates’ Victor Valley office and a commercial real estate broker in the High Desert for more than 20 years. “Gardena, the City of Commerce, the City of Industry and Ontario all grew because of industry.

I think you will see the same thing happen here, eventually. BIG will bring a lot of people, and a lot more development and retail, to Barstow and the High Desert.”

Barstow International Gateway was announced Oct. 1 to coincide with Barstow’s 75th anniversary. It has been endorsed by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) and the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

The $1.5 billion development planned for the city’s west side will include “several million” square feet of warehouse-distribution space although exactly how much hasn’t been determined, said Lena Kent, BNSF’s executive director of public affairs.

An environmental impact report is underway and is expected to be completed by the end of the year, but a formal proposal probably won’t be presented to the city council for at least a year, Barstow City Manager Willie A. Hopkins said.

If it’s approved – and the council supports the concept, according to Hopkins – BIG will cover about four and a half miles between Hinkley and Lenwood roads. BNSF has bought about 90 percent of that property, and the company doesn’t expect to have any difficulty securing what’s left, Kent said.

A construction timeline hasn’t been established, but by the time it’s finished, Barstow International Gateway is expected to create between 20,000 and 30,000 jobs and double the city’s population, which was a little under 25,000 according to the 2020 census.

An economic impact report is also being worked on, Kent said.

If BIG comes close to creating as many jobs as BNSF believes it will, the project will have a major impact on the High Desert economy for years, said Eugene Butticci, executive director of the Barstow Chamber of Commerce.

“We believe there are quite a few businesses looking to coming to come to Barstow because of BIG,” Butticci said. “The population is going to go up, and people will want to get their foot in the door, especially contractors and homebuilders.”

Barstow’s retail sector was growing well before BIG was announced. About four years ago, a Walmart supercenter opened at 300 Montera Road, replacing a regular Walmart that has since been torn down, Buttici said.

Today, the supercenter is part of a shopping center and is Barstow’s only Walmart, Butticci said.

Like a lot of communities, Barstow has a shortage of affordable housing, but it’s difficult to say how much Barstow International Gateway will help lessen that problem, said Dustin Simonton, owner of High Desert Homes in Oak Hills, an unincorporated community about a 40-minute drive from Barstow.

“I hope it does, but I can’t say if it will lead to a lot of houses being built,” Simonton said. “It could, but a lot depends on the economy.”

Another High Desert homebuilder say it’s only a question of how much residential development BIG creates, not whether or not it will happen.

“This is a huge project, and [BNSF] is a big company with a lot of money,” said Wade Harris, owner of W.P. Harris Construction in Barstow. “If they say they’re going to do something I believe they will do it.”

If all goes as planned, BIG will dwarf the 600-acre Barstow Yard, which is owned and operated by BNSF. Barstow Yard, the second largest railroad facility of its kind in the western United States, is used to assemble trains and start them on their next journey. It also has a maintenance yard and a container terminal.

BIG will be an “inland port,” a term used by the logistics industry to describe an intermodal operation large enough to move goods to and from large markets. The High Desert is a logical place to develop such a facility given its available land and spread-out population.

People have been asking BNSF to build a large facility in the High Desert for years, mostly to lessen the backup of goods at the ports of Los Angele and Long Beach, Kent said.

COVID-19, which disrupted international supply chains and caused container backups at both ports, sped up the need for such a facility, which will raise BNSF’s already large profile in North American logistics.

The Ft. Worth-based company owns 32,500 miles of track in 28 states and employs about 35,000 people. It also operates three transcontinental routes and transports goods throughout three Canadian provinces, according to the company’s website

“It will make our operations easier, not just in Southern California and the High Desert, but also in the rest of the country,” Kent said

Exactly how much warehouse-distribution space BIG will have is still being determined.

Some have speculated that the project will be so large it could divert a significant amount of goods from warehouse-distribution centers in the lower part of the Inland Empire, but one of the region’s longest-running industrial brokers doubts that will happen.

“Freight can move in two directions,” said Paul Earnhart, senior vjce president with Lee & Associates Riverside. “It can go from here to Mexico or it can go from Mexico to here, just like its can move in either direction between Los Angeles or Long Beach to Barstow. “That’s why I don’t think it will make much of a difference to the warehouses down here.”

Besides getting the city’s approval, BIG must prove it meets the strict regulations of the California Environmental Quality Act.

Despite being such a large project – and despite there being a growing movement in the Inland Empire to slow down logistics development – BIG has yet to meet any public opposition, and it might not matter if it does.

“I expect the usual environmental groups to try to stop this, but I can’t think of anything they can come up with that will work,” Brown said. “It’s going to take trucks off of the road, and it’s going to be in an area that’s not very populated.”


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One comment

  1. Hooray, build the project now!

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