"There's a lot of people that still have the 15- [or] 20-year-old stereotype perception of the area as being unsophisticated, undereducated -- that kind of thing," said Paul Hiller, former president and chief executive of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership.
The group, which tries to attract businesses and film production to the region, encompasses both counties plus six east Los Angeles County cities, including Claremont, Pomona and La Verne.
"For a long time, many of the coastal communities kind of looked down their nose at the Inland Empire. Now all of a sudden things are changing.... Everyone is migrating to the Inland Empire now," Hiller said.
Having a catch-all appellation makes good business sense, according to officials trying to market the region.
Beginning in the 1950s, when the state Department of Commerce lumped the region together, "Inland Empire became a convenient economic term," Burgess said. "It could mean everything east of Los Angeles."
"Any area that has a brand, I think, is useful," said Paul Thiel, editor and publisher of 951 magazine, a local publication delivered free to some residents of western Riverside County.
But even local boosters admit "Inland Empire" sounds strange.
"You don't want to build an economic engine on the name of something" that conjures up an ancient civilization, said Thiel, who favors labels like Dallas' Metroplex.
Special education teacher and local historian Nick Cataldo said he couldn't stand it when the minor league baseball team, the San Bernardino Stampede, was rechristened the Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernardino in 2003, a precursor to the naming fracas over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
"This is a San Bernardino team," said Cataldo, 52, who lives in the city. "You start putting Inland Empire [in front of it], this team belongs to the whole conglomerate of Riverside, Ontario, San Bernardino."
Unwieldy, largely misunderstood, encumbered by real or imagined baggage, the I.E. is too big to ignore: The region is home to nearly 4 million, more than 10% of the state's population -- and more than all of Oregon's.
"It's a representation of pride, of toughness, maybe even a little dignity thrown in there," Gonzales said, "of people that are on the edge of this huge megalopolis."