Californians’ gas consumption drops 5 percent; diesel drops 11 percent

     Statewide, we’re burning less gas — and it’s a fair bet the same is true for Inland Empire commuters.

     Californians bought 65 million gallons less in May 2008 than in May 2007 — a 5-percent drop, according to a report released last week Aug.28 by the state’s Board of Equalization.

     That’s on top of last month’s year-over-year decline. The board said that commuters purchased 2.2 percent less gas in April this year versus April 2007, a 28 million-gallon drop.

     The average price for a gallon of gas in the San Bernardino-Riverside metropolitan region has been dropping for more than 50 days from a peak of $4.61 in June, but it’s still higher than the $2.73 locals paid one year ago.

     On Friday, the average local price was $3.86 a gallon.

     Diesel fuel consumed in California in May dropped 225 million gallons — a whopping 11-percent drop when compared to May 2007.

     “The numbers confirm what every hard-working family knows,” said Michelle Steel, 3rd district board member, in a news release. “When gas prices go up, consumption goes down.”

     Consumption might be heading down hill, but the state’s gas tax revenue is going up.

     “The BOE estimates that nearly twice as much sales tax is generated annually by higher gasoline prices than five years ago,” the release said. “Those higher prices generated approximately $3.6 billion in sales tax during 2007 when the average price (per gallon in California) was $3.12. In contrast, 2003′s gasoline sales generated $2.1 billion when the average pump price was $1.88.”

     –matthew.wrye@inlandnewspapers.com

Report: small- to mid-size Inland Empire banks are ‘stable’

     On Thursday, San Francisco-based financial services firm Stone & Youngberg LLC released its second-quarter analysis on more than 70 West Coast community banks — including several based in San Bernardino and Riverside counties — and said it’s closely monitoring their earnings and asset quality.

     “The second quarter continues to be very challenging and opportunistic for community banks,” said Michael Natzic, branch manager of the firm’s Big Bear Lake branch, in a news release.

     “Although we saw big write-downs in goodwill from some of the larger community banks, the majority of the smaller to mid-size community banks remain rather stable and adequately capitalized,” he said.

     To request a copy of the report, visit: www.syllc.com/communitybankreport

     Financial companies headquartered locally and analyzed in the report include Chino Commercial Bancorp, Ontario-based CVB Financial Corp., Palm Desert-based Desert Commercial Bank, Big Bear Lake-based First Mountain Bancorp, Upland-based Golden State Business Bank, Ontario-based ICB Financial, Riverside-based Premier Service Bank, Riverside-based Security Bank of California, and Temecula Valley Bancorp.

     –matthew.wrye@inlandnewspapers.com

Nation’s GDP grows, but Inland Empire in ‘micro-recession’

     Recession? What recession?

     The Commerce Department on Thursday said the nation’s gross domestic product actually jumped 3.3 percent between April and June, a revised estimate that was much higher than expected.

     It was better than the first quarter’s 0.9 percent growth and a negative 0.2 percent in the end of 2007, equipping recession-naysayers with more fuel for their fire.

     But don’t confuse the country’s growth with what’s going on at home.

     “You could call it a regional misfortune… or a micro-recession,” said Ira Jackson, dean of the Drucker School at Claremont Graduate University, about the Inland Empire’s economy.

     Our region’s misfortune hearkens back to the late 1980s economy in New England, which shrunk a whopping 8 percent at one point, Jackson said. Just like San Bernardino and Riverside counties, construction and finance businesses — among other industries — led the downward spiral in unemployment at the time.

     The U.S. economy may have expanded during the second quarter, but the year’s remaining GDP numbers might nose dive into the red.

     “Recession is also in the eye of the beholder,” Jackson said. “When we look at (the definition of a) recession, we ought to be thinking about consumer confidence, which is at historic lows.”

     –matthew.wrye@inlandnewspapers.com

PFF bank’s parent company announces shareholder meeting date

     PFF Bancorp, the financial parent of PFF Bank & Trust, announced on Wednesday that its shareholder meeting will be held on Sept. 25 at 9:30 a.m. at the company’s headquarters on 9337 Milliken Ave.

     Votes will be tallied for the proposed merger between PFF and FBOP Corp., an Illinois-based company which owns several banks throughout the country.

     If shareholders approve the acquisition, PFF banks will become Cal National Bank institutions.

     With its common stock — along with special series shares that PFF issued to FBOP through an agreement — FBOP controls 28 percent voting power and will vote “yes” on the merger.

     Collectively, PFF’s board members and certain executive officers hold almost 3 percent voting power and will also vote “yes” on the merger.

     If the merger is approved, stockholders will pocket $1.35 per share. For some, it’s a huge loss, but other investors bought PFF stock when shares hovered around $1.

     While customers collectively pulled out almost $600 million between March and June, multiple law suits were filed against PFF over the last couple of months.

     Plaintiffs claim PFF executives foresaw huge real estate-related losses and sold their stock, while at the same time investing employees’ 401k and stock-option retirement plans into PFF stock and telling shareholders that everything was OK.

     Shareholders lost millions of dollars after shares peaked at almost $40 in mid-2006.

–matthew.wrye@inlandnewspapers.com

Vineyard National Bancorp board member resigns

     Vineyard National Bancorp, parent of Vineyard Bank, announced on Monday evening that Cynthia Harriss resigned from the Corona financial company’s board of directors.

     She was one of five candidates that former CEO Norman Morales managed to get elected to the board following a proxy battle, which ended in a shareholder vote meeting earlier this month.

     The board appointed Perry Hansen, board chairman, to take Harriss’s place, pending regulatory approval.

     Vineyard also said that it amended the company’s bylaws on Aug. 20 and increased the number of board seats from seven to eight. To fill the added spot, it appointed interim president and CEO James LeSieur to serve as a director, pending regulatory approval.

     Federal regulators didn’t approve of Morales sitting on the board.

     Vineyard fired him earlier this year, and he’s been trying to regain control of the bank ever since then with the help of long-time investor Jon Salmanson.

     –matthew.wrye@inlandnewspapers.com

“Green” commercial real estate gaining some speed in I.E.

     Even in a floundering economy, the so-called “green” movement is blossoming in the Inland Empire.

     The economy might not be throwing commercial real-estate professionals champaign salaries like it was before the downturn, but now seems better than ever to capitalize on renewable technologies, according to some who work in the field.

     “(The green movement) is chugging along faster,” said Mary Sullivan, long-time commercial market researcher and owner of Riverside-based Sullivan Consulting Services.
“On the development side, it takes a while, but people are realizing it won’t be as expensive as they once thought.”

     Tenants looking to rent space are increasingly inquiring about green office and industrial buildings, she said.

     “It was originally thought to be more expensive, and there are still financial challenges,” Sullivan said. “But they realize they can recapture that in long-term (energy efficiency) savings.”

     One of the largest local green projects garnering attention is a 600,000 square-foot rooftop on a large industrial building in Fontana. Several photovoltaic solar panels that will eventually transform sunlight into electricity are being installed by Rosemead-based electricity provider Southern California Edison.

     The project is the first step of a larger $875 million proposal to fill more rooftops with solar panels. Edison is waiting for approval within the next six months from the California Public Utilities Commission to move forward.

     For more information on “going green” in the Inland Empire, visit www.greenvalleynow.org, www.giveforthefuture.org and www.cssd.ucr.edu.

     –matthew.wrye@inlandnewspapers.com

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Reply

IEEP has high hopes for international business summit in Ontario

     When the 2008 Southern California International Business Summit hits Ontario’s Doubletree Hotel on Sept. 19, consulates from 15 countries will mingle with regional business leaders who are looking to make more money in oversees markets over the next decade.

     “They range from Poland, Mexico, Japan, China, Singapore, Armenia, and others,” said Bill Carney, president and CEO of Riverside-based Inland Empire Economic Partnership. “We’re hoping over 400 people will attend this year.”

     The organization tried promoting the first annual event last year, but efforts to attract publicity were in vain when October’s wildfires drew most, if not all, regional news media reporters to the natural disaster.

     “Ultimately, we’d like to encourage and increase the amount of global trade in the Inland Empire and show our business community the opportunities of developing business in foreign markets,” Carney said. “If you look right now among companies doing well in profitability and sales, it’s those having the largest share of foreign markets, the Caterpillars and John Deeres of the world.”

     Foreign investment into companies across San Bernardino and Riverside counties is another subject the event will address.

     So what businesses should attend the event, in Carney’s opinion?

     “It’s really for any business, but the obvious are the small manufacturers,” he said. “There are a lot of them who do foreign trade. We become aware of the niche products for markets abroad… and answer questions about how you finance it, insure it, and make sure you get paid.”

     The event is $50 if paid in advance, or $65 at the door, and pre-registration is required. Organizers ask that you RSVP by Sept. 12.

     For more information, visit www.ieep.com or call 951-779-6700, ext. 241.

     –matthew.wrye@inlandnewspapers.com

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Reply

Economy forces Big Bear Lake resort owner to close doors

     Come as a guest, leave as a friend — that was Doreen Wiggins’ motto.
     Not anymore.
     Feeling the brunt of an economic cliff dive in the mountain tourism industry, Wiggins is shutting the doors to Big Bear Lake-based StarGazers Inn & Observatory and listing the cozy six-bedroom resort for $889,900 — far less than the $1.5 million it was appraised for last fall.
     Wiggins’ situation might change if an investor decides to lay down some cash to keep the celestial-theme business afloat for one or two years.
     “I’m still praying for a miracle,” said the former data architect.
     Wiggins put $500,000 into remodeling and expanding the property after buying it in 2000. StarGazers had a sauna, indoor heated saline pool, game room, and a small observatory with an 11-inch telescope imported from Australia for gazing into space.
     The resort never reached profitable occupancy rates, and October’s wildfires sure didn’t help.
     “Unfortunately, a lot of people think the Big Bear area has burned to the ground,” she said. “And other people don’t even know it’s in their back yard.”
     If Wiggins could hold on just a bit longer, her balance sheets would’ve come into the black, she said.
     She has ideas for moving on, but her future career is still in the air.
     “I’m still trying to figure out what the next chapter will be,” Wiggins said. “I’ve always loved people and entertaining them.”
     –matthew.wrye@inlandnewspapers.com

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Reply

County’s real-estate fraud unit sees 40-percent year-over-year jump in investigations

     Over the last few years, the real-estate fraud unit of the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office has seen a 40-percent year-over-year increase in residents claiming to be fraud victims.

     The unit’s most-recent buzz: foreclosure fraud investigations.

     Lately, investigators are dealing with foreclosed homeowners saying they were lured by schemers who promised foreclosure relief for a price tag of $2,000, $3,000 or even more.

     “Our attention is directed there because the times demand it,” said Larry Roberts, lead deputy district attorney. “But we’re easily distracted by the overwhelming amount of (other) cases coming in over the last year.”

     From July 2007 to July 2008, the unit received almost 460 formal complaints from residents across the county claiming they were duped by mortgage fraud or foreclosure fraud schemes.

     For the small 10-person division, the task is daunting, especially when the unit’s case load grows larger every month.

     It usually takes three to six months before investigators can determine whether a complaint can be turned into a case.

     “We have 139 cases sitting here, waiting to be investigated,” he said. “It continues to increase.”

     –matthew.wrye@inlandnewspapers.com

Basin Water Inc plans to dodge Nasdaq stock delisting

     Wastwater services company Basin Water Inc. (Nasdaq: BWTR) said on Wednesday that it will request a hearing with Nasdaq stock exchange officials so it can postpone a scheduled Monday stock delisting.
     The request ensures that shares will stay listed for the time being.
     But if the stock is eventually delisted, the Rancho Cucamonga company would most likely get downshifted to a smaller exchange, closing the door to institutional investors with deeper pockets.
     Basin Water announced last week that it couldn’t file a second-quarter financial report on time because an internal audit committee and independent attorneys were reviewing money transactions.
     The stock closed at $1.78 on Wednesday, down from about $17 when the company went public in May 2006.
     The company might have to restate financial statements for certain periods, according to a previous statement.
     It doesn’t expect analysts’ 2008 revenue estimates of $26 – $36 million will be reached, but instead will report “significant changes” in financial results for the first six months of this year compared to the same period last year.
     “The company may be reexamining the transfer of water rights to its affiliate, Empire Water, which was completed in the fourth quarter last year,” states an Aug. 11 research note published by Janney Montgomery Scott LLC investment firm. “Another possible catalyst for the reassessment is the company’s sale of receivables to third-party financial groups.”
     The company lost $5.1 million in the first quarter, on top of other quarterly losses in 2007.
     Basin Water doesn’t expect to report its financials until after the internal audit is completed.
     The company had about $23 million in cash as of June 30.
     –matthew.wrye@inlandnewspapers.com