Development activity in San Bernardino County’s high desert is as hot as a mid-summer afternoon. With miles of wide-open spaces, the Victor Valley has become an affordable housing relief valve for Southern California. The area’s four incorporated cities and half a dozen unincorporated communities will see about 7,500 new housing units this year alone, according to Joseph Brady, a land broker and industry analyst.

Leading the way is Victorville, a city that may cross the 100,000 population line this year. In 2002, the City of Victorville issued about 1,000 permits for new houses. That figure doubled in 2003 and increased to about 2,700 in 2004. During the first six months of this year, Victorville issued 1,137 permits for new single-family homes. Meanwhile, the cities of Hesperia, Apple Valley and Adelanto are on track to add more than 1,000 new houses apiece. That adds up to a regional growth rate approaching 6%.

Victorville Mayor Mike Rothschild sees the trend continuing. He expects the area’s population, now at approximately 400,000, to reach 1 million within 10 to 15 years.

“We’re probably going to be at it for the next five to six years,” Rothschild said of his city’s extremely rapid growth. “We’re not limited in any way like the Los Angeles Basin is. We’ve got room to grow, and it’s mostly pristine land.”

A large percentage of the new residents are families seeking refuge from high housing prices in the Los Angeles Basin and Orange County. The median price for single-family houses in the high desert was $290,000 in June, according to the California Association of Realtors. That sounds inexpensive compared with the statewide median of $542,000. But consider that houses in the Victor Valley were selling for less than $100,000 only four years ago. Only two years, about two-thirds of Victor Valley residents could afford to buy a house. Now, only about one-third can.

Inland Empire economics guru John Husing says that the Victor Valley is one of Southern California’s “hot zones,” which he describes as an area in the first stage of the suburban growth cycle. As close-in cities build out and prices continue to rise, these hot zones burst onto the scene, even though they were previously considered to be located too far out. Essentially, this is part of California’s “drive-until-you-qualify” phenomenon, in which houses get progressively less expensive the farther they are from job centers.

In 2004, the Victor Valley had only 0.65 jobs for every housing unit, according to Husing, or about half of what is needed for a true balance of jobs and housing. Brady said that 60,000 people a day commute “down the hill” to the Los Angeles Basin.

The City of Victorville, however, has long been the San Bernardino high desert’s economic center, and long-term economic growth has been a city priority since the Pentagon closed George Air Force Base. The 1992 base closure cost Victorville about 5,000 military jobs and nearly 1,000 civilian jobs.

Less than a year after George closed, Victorville annexed the site and a new redevelopment agency took possession of a 5,000-acre base with 13,000-foot-long runways, which are long enough to land even the largest airplanes. George closed at the same time that a number of other air bases in Southern California shuttered or were marked for closure. At the time, the Southern California Association of Governments concluded that George was the most unlikely of the closed bases to become a commercial airfield.

Victorville officials were not deterred. Although Adelanto fought to keep the base, eventually the four cities worked together to create a joint redevelopment agency (the Victor Valley Economic Development Authority), which Victorville essentially runs. The redevelopment project extends for eight miles around the former base.

The redevelopment agency recast George as the Southern California Logistics Airport and tried to position it as a major center for the shipping industry. Although very little happened at the Southern California Logistics Airport for nearly a decade, the action has picked up in recent years. Now, the airport has 60 tenants with 1,900 jobs in 2.5 million square feet of space — and more jobs appear to be on the way.

The city has been acquiring right-of-way for a three-mile long railroad spur that will connect the airport with the Burlington Northern and Sante Fe Railway Company line. Construction on the rail line, a $25 million redevelopment project, is expected to start later this year. City officials are trying to convince BNSF to build a major, multi-modal yard at the airport. Nothing is final yet. Victorville officials contend the rail facilities would turn their city into a major “inland port” that handles freight coming into, and going out of, the ports at Long Beach and Los Angeles, where floor space is very limited. The 6,000-acre airport and the surrounding 25,000 acres are designated for commercial and industrial use. The city anticipates development of up to 60 million square feet of commercial and industrial space — and 30,000 jobs — over the next 10 years.

Rothschild believes that although low real estate prices started the Victor Valley’s growth surge, the promise of new jobs is continuing the boom.

“Now they see the jobs coming in. It’s not pie in the sky stuff,” Rothschild asserted. “We’re not interested in being a residential community. We’re interested in being the hub of the Victor Valley.”

Brady, whose Bradco Companies sells land and tracks the market closely, said Victorville and the Economic Development Authority deserve credit for putting $55 million worth of improvements into the former base. “The base is the jewel that’s going to drive growth for 10 to 15 years,” Brady predicted.

Already, the city has a five-year-old, 800,000-square-foot Goodyear warehouse and shipping facility. Distribution centers for ConAgra Foods and Nutro Pet Products are under construction.

Not surprisingly, the city’s rapid population growth has already spurred extensive retail development. In fact, a new auto mall has opened on the site of the former Roy Rogers/Dale Evans Museum.

While the museum is gone, other pieces of high desert history may be restored. In June, a citizen task force began work on a plan for revitalizing Old Town, which has struggled for years with high vacancy rates and deferred building maintenance. The city has hired Moore Iacofano Goltsman to help prepare the plan.

In July, the city broke ground on a $27 million project to expand city hall from 41,000 square feet to 107,000 square feet.

Maintaining adequate infrastructure is a concern. The city has proposed raising impact fees by 140% to about $9,500 per unit. Carlos Rodriquez, of the Building Industry Association’s Baldy View Chapter, said his organization recognizes the need for more revenue, but would like to see the increase phased in over two years. That request is under discussion at city hall.

So far, negative reaction to the rapid growth has centered, not surprisingly, on traffic congestion.