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Operation Phoenix Making Good Neighbors

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Crime Fighting Effort Gets Thumbs Up From Waterman Businesses

By Chris Levister

Waterman Avenue is one of San Bernardino's busiest and most important arteries -  one of the city's oldest most established economic powerhouses - gateway to the San Bernardino mountains, a confluence of freeways, dozens of multi-single family residential units, three nursing and assisted living facilities and home to hundreds of medical, legal, insurance, retail, restaurant, government and commercial establishments including the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Black Voice News, San Bernardino Medical Group and St. Bernardine Medical Center.   

The thriving artery also has a dark side - neighbor to San Bernardino's most notorious crime fighting war zone. A 20-block area northeast of downtown, known as the Operation Phoenix corridor, an area bounded by Waterman Avenue to the east, 16th Street to the north, Baseline Road to the south and Sierra Way to the west.

It's Saturday morning and Charles "Skip" Herbert is doing something he's become accustomed to - removing graffiti from the faces of his 15-year-old Bright Ideas Bookstore and CHECpoint Systems his language testing business next door.

"I've got better things to do, but you just get used to it," says Herbert. So why aren't Herbert and his business counterparts packing up and leaving their dangerous neighborhood behind?

San Bernardino Mayor Patrick J. Morris ( c ) joins members of the business and residential community for the 2006 grand opening of the city’s crime fighting Operation Phoenix headquarters and community center located at 1450 Waterman Avenue.
"Operation Phoenix is a ‘Bright Idea', it's a good neighbor," says Herbert with a big grin. "Crime is abating, there's a whole new spirit of cooperation and revitalization in the air." He says after years of decline and urban blight people in the area are working together, criminals are moving out and new businesses are moving in. That's a public relations message you can't buy considering Herbert's businesses sit just doors from the Operation Phoenix Headquarters and new community center located at 1450 Waterman Avenue.         

Just blocks away and months ago gunshots rang out nightly, helicopters buzzed the skies above and the streets morphed into a battlefield between warring gangs - where mostly Black and Hispanic renters and small businesses wallowed in a dangerous soup of abandoned boarded up buildings, absentee landlords, trash littered streets, prostitution and what law enforcement and many in the area described as a throbbing network for Mexican drug dealing.    

Originally a house, Herbert's Bright Ideas bookstore is a crush of some 10,000 educational items, from award winning children's books to textbooks, from games to classroom materials. He sells directly to schools and districts as well as walk-in customers. He says at one time, he considered leaving the area for a safer location - a mall or other high traffic area, but decided his customers appreciated having a positive resource in their own community.

Herbert is not alone in his glowing assessment. More than 100 business and professional establishments along the corridor when surveyed gave the crime fighting program a thumbs up. Most see Operation Phoenix as a model for safer streets and want to see the operation expanded citywide.

Security personnel at San Bernardino Medical Group, the DMV and St. Bernardine Medical Center credit a near 60 percent reduction in crime to a significant boost in law enforcement patrolling the area, regular community block parties, neighborhood watch groups and aggressive code enforcement.

Many business owners say the difference is what they don't hear: gunshots, helicopters and screaming.

In 2006 Mayor Patrick Morris declared Operation Phoenix's mix of suppression, intervention and prevention would become the pillars upon which "we are rebuilding our City out of the ashes of crime and violence into a shining example of peace and renewal." 

June Durr, Marketing and Public Relations Manager for the city's Economic Development Agency hails the renewal and crime fighting strategy. She points to the Walgreens under construction at the corner of Waterman and Baseline in what was just months ago an abandoned gas station and thruway for transients, drug dealers and prostitutes.

"The Walgreens project is evidence of a citywide revitalization. Their presence  in the neighborhood means other businesses will follow," says Durr. She says the agency routinely visits Waterman businesses providing services and a sense of safety. "We want to let business know that we are raising the standard."

Durr says economic development provides a variety of public and private programs and services to attract new development to the area while retaining existing businesses with the ultimate goal of maximizing employment opportunities and increasing capital investment in the area.

Since the Operation Phoenix launch, Mayor Morris said he hears daily from thankful residents and businesses along the Waterman corridor.

"It's a great place to be," he said "Businesses can flourish and families can go out at night and walk with their children." 

Still, Morris and others like "Skip" Herbert acknowledge the streets are far from pristine there is much to be done.

"Sure the graffiti is a real nuisance," says Herbert "But when you see parents bring their kids into the bookstore and you see those kid's eyes light up - its worth staying around. When I see kids from the Operation Phoenix community center playfully tip toeing through my ivy plants on the way home, I smile, scratch my head and say kids will be kids."

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