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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

In Fontana, former developer Phil Burum embraces role at City Hall

Fontana is a city in transition, and Phil Burrum thinks it is on the verge of a transformation.

In a city with few modern apartments, two high-end complexes of 400 units each are coming up on Foothill Boulevard, aimed at an upwardly mobile population. A much-anticipated sports park for South Fontana should debut in January.

A fancy restaurant, Spaghies, is soon to open in a renovated 1925 building opposite City Hall. Guidelines are being drawn up for the development of a denser, taller city, including housing, offices and retail.

Burm, who is in charge of planning and construction at City Hall, can hardly wait.

“Everyone talks about Riverside and Ontario. We are under the radar,” says Burum, of his hometown of 220,000. Its downtown, supposedly longer at capacity than current drawing power. But he is convinced that will change.

His dream: “I want people to go to the Ontario airport, go to the convention center, then say, ‘There’s an interesting city about 10 minutes from here, let’s go there.'”

Visitors can say that already – before heading west to Clermont. Or am I biased?

Even though downtown Fontana’s boutique seems far from here in 2021, it’s hard not to get caught up in the berm’s excitement. We were meeting late last month for breakfast at Old Fontana, a classic example of Red Hill coffee shop, where Burrum was digging into a plate of hash and eggs as if he were a little haul trucker.

He has a working past – more on that in a minute. Yet his recent job history, and his locally famous last name, are nothing but blue collar.

Yes, he’s the brother of Jeff Burm, a developer of Colonies housing and shopping centers in Upland and the winner of $167 million in two court victories over San Bernardino County. That’s some good money going around.

Phil spent 19 years in his older brother’s job before leaving in 2019 to become vice president of housing developer DR Horton. It was here that Fontana City Manager Mark Denney urged him to apply to be the deputy city manager in charge of development services.

Burrum kept saying he was not interested, but told himself of plans to develop and improve Fontana, which is across the 15 freeway from his home in Rancho Cucamonga.

Two people impressed him. Greg Devereaux, a former city manager for Fontana and Ontario and former San Bernardino County government CEO, told him that there is no greater calling than public service.

And Fontana Mayor Aquineta Warren told him that as a developer, “You’ve been bitching about people sitting in this chair for 20 years. Now you’re being given a chance to do it your way — and you Saying no?” (Those are Burrum’s words, but it sounds like his.)

Buram submitted an application, was hired and started in February.

“I took a big pay cut to come here,” says Burm, who makes $240,000 and has a city vehicle. “I was sold on the sight.”

I met him in May at the opening of Central City Park. When he was introduced to me as Phil Burrum, I passed on his surname without comment. He was friendly, and can be just as helpful to anyone when they are still new to the job.

Councilman John Roberts filled me with how Burrum had made the unusual transition from the private to the public sector. Usually it goes the other way, where a city executive retires where the real money is, the private sector. (I wish I could say it was in the newspapers.)

After chatting with Burrum at city council meetings, I requested an interview. While he was reluctant to put himself out there, he believes there is a novelty factor in his transition.

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“I’ve reached my happy place – in the background,” Buram told me. “It’s a strange story, so I understand the curiosity.”

In an earlier conversation, Denny confirmed that it is unusual for people to make the jump to Burrum, and succeed.

“People don’t always make that transition well. They’re frustrated with the pace of the government. Phil, I think, has really embraced it,” said Denny, whose last day is Thursday. (Ironically that he is going to the private sector.)

Is this chicken like a fox guarding the house? In a pro-growth city like Fontana, it doesn’t matter. But Denny said Burrum’s background makes him a good negotiator.

Or as Buram puts it: “From the point of view of the city, you can’t steamroll me.”

Burm grew up outside of Washington, DC, where he was raised in Section 8 housing and attended public schools. Because the family was torn apart, she and Jeff, who is six years older and spent most of their lives in the Southwest, barely knew each other growing up.

Chhota Burrum describes himself as a knowledgeable who decided he was too smart for college, and who probably outdid himself in the process. He ran a bar, ran a dry cleaner, ran a tuxedo and bridal company.

Then in a series of conversations, his brother persuaded him, at the age of 29, to move to the Inland Empire, learn real estate, and help him.

“He wanted to give his little brother a leg up in the world,” Phil says. “He knew I could be trusted to do the job.”

Can he get Fontana to work as well? At 52, he says he’s having a lot of fun trying it out, while realizing that helping his bosses make more money this quarter wasn’t the highest calling he could have aspirated.

“I am the opposite of a government employee. I am a capitalist,” says Baram. “But it has been an incredible experience. I don’t think I am more satisfied than I am now. It’s great to fix a problem.”

Fontana is changing too. A city that had 42,000 people in 1982 (some of whom took part in the Ku Klux Klan march last year) has grown quintupled in size, and its $80,000 household income, Burum says, outweighs the uplands.

“We have 47 parks. Rancho doesn’t have that many,” Buram claims. Yet he acknowledges that Fontana has “a badly depopulated” section, with few homes still on septic systems in addition to its “million-dollar homes” to the north.

The city’s red-hot growth generates revenue to fund parks, streets and sidewalks and also creates an opportunity to change the look of the city, which Burrum hopes compares to a “cookie-cutter” look under his watch. will become more “architectural interesting”. Rancho Cucamonga.

“The city has changed a lot. The next 50,000 people that we add are going to change it more,” says Buram. “I’m hoping that in 10 years, you’ll never hear ‘Fontkey’.”

And then he took another bite of Corned Beef Hash.


The flour tortilla from Riverside’s Anchos Southwest Grill made the final four of the KCRW Bracket-style tortilla tournament, the first time the Inland Empire got so far in the flour or corn categories. Ankos lost when the results were announced on Sunday. The champion was Burritos La Palma, who had made the Final Four three times before winning. This makes me think the time for Anchos will come. Meanwhile: Pass me a tortilla.

David Allen grills people and tortillas on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Email [email protected], phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.

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