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Less Mining, More Business

Irwindale hopes to shed its image as 'rock city' by reclaiming former gravel pits and turning them into industrial parks and retail centers.

June 21, 2004|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

Seventeen hollows, the deepest at 275 feet, puncture the San Gabriel Valley city of Irwindale. Full of quality rocks, the town's 9.5 square miles have been mined for more than a century.

"There's probably not a road in the state without Irwindale rock," and Southern California developers credit the city for building Los Angeles, boasted Elaine Cullen, Irwindale's economic development manager.

"We like to say, 'There's a little bit of Irwindale everywhere,' " she said.

Hometown pride aside, Irwindale, roughly 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, is looking to shed its image as a rock city.

City officials hope to phase out mining pits and replace them with industrial parks and major businesses like Miller Brewing Co., which has been there since the 1970s.

The city's biggest success story is the new $150-million Irwindale Business Center, a 2.2-million-square-foot development built on a reclaimed gravel pit. Home to 38 companies and 2,200 employees, city and mining officials say the center represents the future of Irwindale -- and other mining communities in California and nationwide.

"One day, you'll look at this place and not know it was a mining town," said Cullen, as she drove through the city scouting spots for development.

As one of California's largest mining areas, Irwindale is leading the trend toward reclaiming old pits and turning them into tax-generating businesses, said Adam Harper, manager of the California Mining Assn. in Sacramento. The Irwindale Business Center was highlighted at the association's state conference last month in Napa Valley, Harper said.

In recent years, Irwindale officials have increased their efforts to transform the mining town. It hired Cullen two years ago in the newly created position. A veteran of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., Cullen's job is to recruit and retain businesses.

The city also has created a master plan for development sites. For potential business investors, it has sleek brochures touting the area's proximity to the 210, 605 and 10 freeways as well as its large swaths of undeveloped land on former gravel pits.

Since the early 1900s, mining companies in the San Gabriel Valley have produced more than a billion tons of rock, sand and gravel that have been used to build the region's freeways, structures and local landmarks such as the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Cities generally don't want aggregate mining, which makes concrete and asphalt, because it's a low-dollar commodity, said Rick Markley, editor of Rock Products, a 107-year-old trade publication based in Chicago. Residents resist mining operations because they can look unsightly and raise environmental concerns, he said.

Meanwhile, suburban sprawl has increased the need for rock materials, Markley said. "What's going on in Irwindale is a microcosm for what's going on nationwide," he said. "People need the products, but they don't want the operations in their communities."

Irwindale overflows with rock resources thanks to the San Gabriel River, which bisects the city and creates an alluvial fan of deposits from the nearby San Gabriel Mountains. The city was incorporated in 1957, with its boundaries zigzagging around the quarries.

The city has been at odds with the mining companies for decades, City Manager Steve Blancarte said recently while sitting in a conference room with other city boosters.

"They wanted to keep digging further down," he said. "And we wanted them to reclaim mining pits to street level."

Blancarte sighed. "Basically, we want Irwindale to look like other urban areas," he said.

Irwindale's gaping pits and depressed landscape are hard to miss -- as is the Irwindale Speedway, a motor racetrack visible from the 605 Freeway and built on a quarry landfill.

The city has a residential population of 1,500 and a workday populace of up to 50,000 people. The city hopes to change that, too, with plans to build about 660 homes in the next decade.

In the last five years, Irwindale and mining officials have started to work together to help the city achieve its development goals.

Both groups "realized that we needed to have a symbiotic relationship to be successful," said Steve Cortner, a vice president in Los Angeles for the western division of Vulcan Materials Co., with headquarters in Birmingham, Ala. Vulcan operates two active pits in Irwindale, Cortner said.

Irwindale needs the mining companies to backfill inactive pits, of which the city has 11. Some will be developed; other sites will be used for open space.

Backfilling can take more than a decade, Cortner and others said, because of the intense labor required, complicated logistics and a limited supply of fill suitable for compacting.

Irwindale officials believe the wait is worth the hassle, because more development means more money. Mining provides the city with about $2.1 million in revenue, while sales taxes generate more than $4 million.

New retail centers would also entice residents, who now must drive to neighboring cities for groceries, toiletries and most household supplies. "We're very excited about the city's future," said Camille Diaz, an assistant city manager who, like her neighbors, has lived much of her life in Irwindale.

"It takes a lot of energy to transform a traditional mining town," added Cullen, of the city's economic development department. "But everywhere you go, you see construction.

"That's a positive sign," she said. "That's a sign that we're on our way."

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