Legacy of Norton lives on in San Bernardino

  • Published
  • By Susan Wolbarst
  • AFRPA / PA
Thanks to a San Bernardino, Calif. supermarket executive, the legacy of the former Norton Air Force Base lives on.

The base was selected for closure by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in 1988. In 1990, the Inland Valley Development Agency was formed to redevelop the non-aviation portion of the base (about 600 acres) and a redevelopment project area of approximately 13,000 acres of surrounding properties. Redevelopment got off to a slow start.

"There was nothing here," Jim Gourley, former director of the IVDA, recalls. "I was there before we had title to the land."
No developer Mr. Gourley considered capable of redeveloping the former base would even discuss the job with him. Then officials with AFRPA got involved.

"The Air Force Real Property Agency worked with us and we got the deeds," Mr. Gourley said. "AFRPA's contribution was the key that opened the door," to attracting a master developer (Hillwood) and major companies such as Stater Brothers.

Stater Bros. CEO Jack Brown is a native of San Bernardino, as was Captain Leland F. Norton. Growing up, Mr. Brown knew the Norton family. Twenty-three-year-old Capt. Norton died on May 27, 1944, on his 16th combat mission over occupied France. He remained at the controls of his damaged A-20 aircraft until his crew had bailed out. By then, it was too late to save himself. The highest Air Force Award, the Distinguished Flying Cross, was awarded to Norton posthumously.

The San Bernardino Air Depot, opened in 1942, was renamed after Capt. Norton in 1950 and known as Norton Air Force Base until its closure in 1994.

Mr. Brown acquired 180 acres of the former base in 2004 and announced plans to build a 2.3 million-square-foot complex there, locating his company's corporate headquarters on the footprint of the former Norton AFB headquarters.

It really bothered him that the former base was redeveloped with a new name: San Bernardino International Airport, with no reference to Capt. Norton. "Tradition is important," Mr. Brown believes. So he named his development Stater Bros. Norton Distribution Center, keeping the Norton name alive.

More than 35 World War II-era buildings were dismantled to build the complex. Two million board feet of salvaged lumber was sent to Mexico, where it was recycled into 200 homes. Remaining lumber was sanded and cut into lengths saying, "Souvenir 'Harvested' from Norton Air Force Base." One side shows a Stater Bros. truck and logo, along with Air Force wings. The other tells the history of Norton Air Force Base.

The headquarters lobby has two displays: one about the history of Stater Brothers supermarkets and another devoted to Leland Norton. Capt. Norton's personal effects were given to Mr. Brown by Norton's niece. Mr. Brown hired a museum curator to design the exhibit, which displays Norton's captain's bars, medals, letters, his Bible, and photographs of him. The lobby also houses the general's flag pole once used at Norton AFB.

Stater Bros. got started when a couple of World War II fighter pilots, twin brothers Cleo and Leo Stater, opened a grocery store in Yucaipa, CA in 1936. Joined by their brother Lavoy, they expanded to 23 locations before selling the company in 1968.

When Jack Brown joined Stater Bros. as president and CEO in 1981, the company had 93 supermarkets. Today, Stater Bros. operates 167 supermarkets, employing more than 17,000, including 2,000 at the Norton Distribution Center. The region's largest private employer, Stater Bros. has an annual payroll of $180 million. Annual sales reached $3.77 billion in 2009.

"This is the largest food distribution center in America - 2.1 million square feet under one roof," Mr. Brown says. The center aisle, he notes proudly, is 233 feet longer than the Empire State Building would be if laid on its side.

"Jack Brown and Stater Bros. Markets have been an incredible catalyst to base conversion efforts at Norton," according to Michael Burrows, assistant director of the IVDA. "They are responsible for the transformation of our most difficult pieces of land to redevelop and overcoming a nearly impossible set of factors, conditions, and constraints."