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    Have you paid real money for extra brains in Zombie Farm? Or for a virtual fountain in FarmVille? Do you own virtual property in Second Life? Have your kids racked up a hefty bill unknowingly buying virtual items in online games?

    A Riverside software engineer was quoted in the Washington Post having just that happen to him -- he downloaded a dolphin game on his phone, and his kids ended up buying $52 worth of coins to play with the dolphins.

    I'm looking into the growth of virtual online economies for an upcoming story. If you've got a story to tell, I'd like to hear it. E-mail me at the address below.

    -- Kimberly Pierceall
    kpierceall@PE.com


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    Courtesy of Ed Komski
    Ed Komski stands outside his now closed and demolished convenience store in Barstow.
    Courtesy of Ed Komski
    A view of a refrigerator packed with Monster energy drinks inside Ed Komski's now closed Xtreme Convenience store.

    For travelers who frequently journeyed between the Inland Empire and Las Vegas since December 2008, there had been an outpost in between that sat like a beacon of glowing green light for those with a taste for Monster Energy drinks and all that goes with the "extreme" brand.

    That outpost -- Xtreme Convenience in Barstow off the Lenwood Road exit -- has closed and all that's left is an empty lot.

    Ed Komski, CEO of Xtreme Convenience, said it came down to gas prices. A Love's Travel Stop gas station and store opened in mid-2009 and had been offering gas for $2.99 a gallon, Komski said. He could barely eke out a 5 cents a gallon profit selling his gas for $3.19 a gallon.

    "How could I possibly compete with that?" he said. He sent a letter to the California Attorney General's office, but to no avail. The office wrote him back saying there wasn't enough information to pursue an investigation, he said.

    His business partner in the store also owned the land. Not long after the store closed Dec. 28, the tanks were pulled out of the ground and the store leveled.

    "It's the best thing for the property," Komski said, admitting that the whole situation has been a "little disheartening."

    Moving forward, the Fallbrook resident said he has a letter from the president of Hansen Natural (the maker of Monster Energy drinks) saying he'll support the expansion of the Xtreme brand of stores. Komski said he's hoping to put together two investor groups -- one that will invest in a mobile convenience store concept that would go to fairs, etc. and carry the essentials (band-aids, personal items, chips, drinks, etc.) and the other to open another brick-and-mortar Xtreme Convenience store. Komski doesn't want anything to do with running a gas station though. He's looking for gas stations that need a store to partner with, he said.

    "I'm done with gas," he said.

    Related stories: Store scores with Monster idea -- The Press-Enterprise

    -- Kimberly Pierceall
    kpierceall@PE.com


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    It doesn't seem long ago that Southern California realtors were celebrating an increase in loan limits that the Federal Housing Administration was willing to insure. It allowed FHA mortgages to play a much expanded role in the pricey Southern California real estate market and kept the housing market from collapsing entirely when private credit markets froze.

    But according to The Washington Post this week George Washington University released a report that said the size of mortgages backed by the FHA should shrink dramatically so the agency can reduce the financial risk it faces if the loans default.

    The Post said today the Obama Administration is expected to release a "white paper" that recommends allowing loan limits slowly to fall to lower levels so the government can scale back its role in the mortgage market, enabling the private sector to step back in to fill the vacuum.

    The FHA now insures loans of up to $729,750 for single family homes in expensive housing markets, the Post points out, while in the past it capped the loans it would insure at $362,790.

    --Leslie Berkman
    lberkman@PE.com


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    It looks as though women's clich├ęd love for shoes may be helping to forge a path to recovery.

    Spending on fashion footwear in the U.S. increased 7.2 percent last year over 2009, according to a recent report by market research firm NPD Group. And women's shoes saw the biggest growth spurt, 8 percent overall.

    "The footwear market was the last to feel the pain of the recession and is the first to feel the gain of the recovery and women are leading the charge," Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD, said in a news release.

    Women are by far the largest benefactors of spending on shoes. Of the $34.6 billion spent by U.S. consumers last year on fashion footwear, $21.7 billion - or about 60 percent - was spent on women's shoes, the report said. Spending on men's shoes amounted to less than half of that, $10.5 billion, and only $3.4 billion was spent on shoes for kids.

    The report also found more consumers were shopping shoe stores for their footwear in lieu of discount or department stores. Among the big sellers last year were walking shoes, work shoes and women's boots.

    --Tiffany Ray
    tray@PE.com


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    Historically low interest rates and a slight decline in home prices in the fourth quarter of 2010 meant that the percentage of first-time buyers who could afford to purchase an entry level home in California rose to 69 percent, up from 66 percent in the third quarter and 64 percent a year earlier.

    The report from the California Association of Realtors showed that in the last three months of 2010, 82 percent of first time buyers in San Bernardino County were able to purchase an entry-level priced home of $138,050. They needed a minimum household income of $21,300 to qualify.

    In the fourth quarter in Riverside County 79 percent of first time buyers could afford a home. They needed a minimum income of $25,200 to buy an entry-level house of $163,010.

    The most affordable region in the state was the High Desert, where 85 percent of first -time buyers could afford an entry level home of $106,320, for which they could qualify with an annual income of $16,500.

    --Leslie Berkman
    lberkman@PE.com


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    If you haven't gotten your free Taco Bell taco yet and you'd like one, you may not have much time left.

    The fast-food chain launched the 10-million-taco giveaway on Feb. 8, offering a free crunchy seasoned beef taco to Facebook fans. To get the voucher, you have to "like" the promotion on Taco Bell's Facebook page. As of Thursday evening, about 5.6 million people had done so.

    The company said it will put up a notice on Facebook when 10 million coupons have been downloaded.

    The giveaway is part of the company's media blitz against allegations its taco meat does not meet the definition of "beef."

    The lawsuit, filed last month by an Alabama-based firm, alleges Taco Bell is misrepresenting its products because its "seasoned beef" and "seasoned ground beef" fillings contain substantial amounts of substances other than beef, including extenders, binders and "isolated oat product."

    The suit calls for a "corrective advertising campaign" and new labeling calling the beef filling "taco meat filling."

    To refute the claim, Taco Bell has taken out full page ads in major newspapers, created YouTube videos and launched an online campaign. The company said the lawsuit's claims are false and its seasoned beef is made from 88 percent beef and 12 percent seasonings, spices, water and other ingredients to provide taste, texture and moisture.

    Taco Bell said it plans to take legal action against the lawyers that filed the suit.

    --Tiffany Ray
    tray@PE.com


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    An economic recession and falling real estate values have created million dollar bargains--and apparently more Californians are becoming interested in buying them, according to a report released today by DataQuick Information Systems.

    While overall homes sales in California declined last year, the number that sold for $1 million or more rose for the first time in five years. Last year 22,549 California homes sold for $1 million or more, up 21 percent from 2009.

    The allure is that a million dollar home is a lot nicer looking and in a lot nicer neighborhood today than in the boom years when all you could get for that sum in many parts of California was a tract house, noted DataQuick analyst Andrew LePage.

    Another reason for the uptick in purchases of expensive homes may be that those who can afford them feel more confident about their financial well-being than they did a year ago, when the number of million dollar plus homes sold in the state sank to an extraordinarily low level.

    "Prestige home buyers respond to a different set of motivations than the rest of us. Their decisions are less dependent on jobs, prices and interest rates, and more on how their portfolio is doing, " DataQuick President John Walsh said in a prepared statement.
    "When the financial world was full of uncertainty a couple of years back, and the jumbo loan market dried up, luxury sales plummeted. As the economy started its top down recovery, some wealthy buyers went looking for a bargain, he said.

    "Additionally, there has always been a safe-haven component in the million-dollar market that attracts wealth," he said.

    Among California communities where the vast majority of home sales were $1 million-plus last year were San Marino in Los Angeles County, Los Altos in Santa Clara County, Rancho Santa Ve in San Diego County and Atherton and Hillsborough in San Mateo County. The most expensive confirmed purchase, based on public records was a 35,378-square-foot, 15-bedroom, 7-bathroom house in Bel Air that sold for $50 million in June.

    In the top hundred California communities with home sales of $1 million and more were four in Inland Southern California, all of which were in the Coachella Valley desert resort area.

    Public records show that 132 homes priced at $1 million or more sold last year in La Quinta, which was up from 102 in 2009 and the largest number sold last year in Riverside or San Bernardino counties. The most expensive home sale in La Quinta last year was $5 million. Palm Desert recorded the highest price sales last year at $9.1 million.

    Other desert communities with large numbers of expensive homes were Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells.

    --Leslie Berkman
    lberkman@PE.com



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    ith most ready-to-build home lots used up, the Inland Empire division of Lennar Homes is embarking on the most land development activity it has done in years.

    "We are moving forward on three master planned communities in the Inland Empire," said division president Greg McGuff.

    At Rosena Ranch in San Bernardino, Lennar is developing three new communities consisting of 1500 home lots. Currently the company is putting in neighborhood streets, curbs and gutters. Model homes will be ready for home sales to begin March 12 and a recreation center will open in July, McGuff said.

    At College Park in Chino, Lennar and Standard Pacific are planning to build homes on
    204 lots in three new communities. Sales are scheduled to start in May., McGuff said.

    And at the Murrieta planned community of Rancho Bella Vista, which was half built out several years ago by Richmond Pacific and Centex, McGuff said Lennar is grading the second half of the community that will consist of 700 single family home lots. Sales are expected to begin there in August.

    McGuff said the homes Lennar will be building in the three locations are designed for first-time and move-up buyers, with prices ranging from the mid $200,000s to the mid $400,000s, and should keep Lennar supplied with homes to sell in the region for the next three to five years.

    "Like a lot of builders we are coming out with new floor plans," McGuff said. "They focus on great rooms, walk-in pantries, large walk-in linen closets." In addition, he said the homes feature a lot of energy saving features.

    He said the communities chosen for development at this early stage of the housing market recovery are in "what we consider "A" locations, which are within commuting distance of the coastal areas."

    --Leslie Berkman
    lberkman@PE.com


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    Fresh & Easy has launched a new line of high-end prepared meals called Gourmet that offers shoppers take-home entrees ranging from braised lamb shank and braised beef in red wine sauce to California Champagne shrimp and lemon tartlets.

    The new line offers soups, prepared meals that come fresh or frozen, and desserts. Prices are $2.99 for soups, $5.99-$6.99 for meals and $2.99-$5.99 for desserts. They are made with no preservatives or artificial colors or flavors, no high-fructose corn syrup, no added trans fats and preservatives "when absolutely necessary," the company said.

    They were slated to hit stores by today.

    The grocery chain, launched in the Inland Empire in 2007 by U.K.-based Tesco PLC, has focused heavily on its prepared meals segment as it has sought to claim a toehold in the U.S. market. It has grown to more than 150 stores in California, Arizona and Nevada.

    For grocers, prepared meals can offer better profit margins than other goods, according to Jack Plunkett, CEO of Houston-based Plunkett research and author of "The Next Boom."

    A recent report by research firm Technomic found consumers are increasingly buying prepared meals from places other than restaurants - supermarkets, convenience stores and mass merchandisers, specifically.

    The report found consumers take a closer look at the nutritional value of meals when they buy them from stores; two in five said they consider nutrition when making such purchases, versus one in four who think about it when they are eating out.

    --Tiffany Ray
    tray@PE.com



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    Another furniture chain has made an economic move and has selected an Inland Southern California location as one of its focal points.

    McFerran Furniture has purchased an 86,000-square-foot warehouse facility in Chino for and will move its distribution hub there from the current location in City of Industry, according to a statement from Grubb & Ellis, which represented the furniture company.

    The company purchased the property from United Overseas Bank. David Wu, a Grubb & Ellis senior vice president, said the price so low enough that the payments would compare favorably to what McFerran would have been making had the firm signed a lease.

    The property is at 4850 Eucalyptus Avenue in Chino Centerpointe, an 11-year-old, 40-acre complex that includes Coca Cola and Proctor & Gamble on its list of users.

    --Jack Katzanek
    jkatzanek@PE.com


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    Mike Marlatt, a partner with Riverside's Thomspon & Colegate, has taken the helm of the San Bernardino-Riverside Counties Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

    As president of the chapter, Marlatt, said he plans to promote civility during legal proceedings.

    "Over the past several years, many of our members have noted that there has been a lack of cooperation and civility amongst lawyers; especially those beginning their practice," he wrote in the letter to The Press-Enterprise (speaking of civility, hand-signed letters can be pretty "civil" if I do say so myself.)

    -- Kimberly Pierceall
    kpierceall@PE.com


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    A very wealthy individual who chooses to remain anonymous is advertising for residential development projects throughout California to invest in. An Internet appeal from his representative, Land Advisors Organization, says he will lend $500,000 to $10 million a shot at an interest rate of plus or minus 12 percent and a term of one to two years, with a possible option to extend. The land is his security.

    Judging by this investor's track record, he is very interested in the Inland Empire, which last year was the location of four of six projects he lent on statewide.

    These are the Inland projects for which the anonymous investor has provided financing: 10 completed homes and 200 finished lots in French Valley, 4 completed homes and 100 finished or graded lots in Murrieta, 20 completed homes and 200 finished lots in French Valley and 450 unimproved lots in Menifee.

    R. Jeffrey Spindler, foundng principal of Land Advisors Organization based in Orange County, said his client fills a need because banks have become very reluctant to provide financing for land development. "We get a lot of calls," he said.

    Spindler said so far borrowers have employed about half the money his client has loaned to purchase broken land development projects repossessed by the lending industry. The remaining funds, he said, were used to complete projects on which banks refused to lend.

    --Leslie Berkman
    lberkman@PE.com


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    When the recession ends, homebuyers of various ages will bypass downtown urban cores and remote housing developments in favor of small homes built just outside dense employment centers and close to public transit, according to the head of the Urban Land Institute.

    Urban Land Institute Chief Executive Officer Patrick L. Philllips in a Feb. 12 presentation cited findings from the Institute's publication Housing in America, which show a desire by both Baby Boomers and Generation Y to live in more pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented mixed-use environments that reduce dependency on automobiles.

    Phillips predicted that most home buyers will shun the congestion of downtowns but also refuse to move so far away that they will have to commute long distances to work.

    "We've learned that there is a market for compact, mixed-use design, smaller housing space and developemnt that minimizes the need to drive. The demand for this has stretched beyond downtown cores and into the suburbs, and it is the first-tier suburbs that are best positioned to accomodate this type of development," Phillips said.

    --Leslie Berkman
    lberkman@PE.com


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    Riverside-based Speakercraft which has focused on in-wall sound systems and control systems compatible with one's iPhone, etc., has partnered with Paul Frank -- the company with the hard to miss colorful cartoon monkeys, etc. -- to make and sell an iPod dock modeled after the primary cartoon monkey, Julius.

    Dubbed the "Julius Dance Machine," the dock appears to retail for about $100 and may be one of the first items for Speakercraft to sell directly to the masses (typically its branded goods are sold to dealers of high-end speaker systems who then sell to customers).

    I'm looking forward to talking with Riverside-native and Speakercraft CEO Jeremy Burkhardt soon to find out more about this latest business partnership. Check back here for more updates.

    Related stories: CEO of SpeakerCraft likes the sounds of sales, success -- The Press-Enterprise

    -- Kimberly Pierceall
    kpierceall@PE.com


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    Has anyone stopped to think about the sheer volume of unemployment claims being processed in California these days and the amount of money that's paid out?

    The state Employment Development Department did just that last week. Based on the size of the numbers involved, they probably should have preferred not to risk making the staff morbid, to say nothing of the public. In 2010, the state processed 7.7 million initial claims and federally funded extensions, EDD reported.

    The total cost is a record-breaking $22.9 billion paid out to the state of California's 1.7 million unemployed people, or about $90 million per day. Pam Harris, chief deputy director of the state agency, called these numbers "staggering." In a typical year, one where you can find a job without too much bleeding, the state usually pays somewhere around $5 billion or $6 billion.

    In 2010, the state issued 41.2 million unemployment checks, but at least they went to good use. According to EDD, the federal government said every dollar handed out generates $2 by people buying food, gas or other necessities. So instead of looking at $23 billion spent, look at it as $46 billion earned.

    California is the country's most populous state, so it is not surprising it has the most claims. The second largest is Pennsylvania. However, California has more claimants then the next three most populous states (New York, Texas and Florida) combined.

    --Jack Katzanek
    jkatzanek@PE.com


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    A job fair billed as the largest ever in Southern California is scheduled for Feb. 24 at Angels Stadium in Anaheim. The all-day event has two sessions, from 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 1:30 to 5 p.m.

    The event is sponsored by Best Jobs Magazine and the National Employment Council.

    Several workshops designed to assist job hunters in their search have been scheduled.
    It is suggested that participants register for the event in advance by going to http://www.10000bestjobs

    Jack Katzanek
    jkatzanek@PE.com


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    The executive who took over the role of CEO of Arrowhead Credit Union when the National Credit Union Administration seized the San Bernardino-based financial institution in June 2010 is stepping aside to take a part-time role, according to the regulator.

    Kay Woods succeeded Larry Sharp who was removed from his position as CEO of Arrowhead shortly after the NCUA seized it. Replacing her will be Steve Becker, chief operating officer at the credit union since it was taken over.

    "NCUA is grateful for work she did to stabilize Arrowhead Credit Union and improve its financial standing," said NCUA spokesman John McKechnie in an e-mail.

    Related stories: Arrowhead Credit Union reports multiple losses last year -- The Press-Enterprise

    -- Kimberly Pierceall
    kpierceall@PE.com


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    Clouds hanging over the housing market in 2011 come not only from lackluster demand caused by a weak economy and lack of home equity but also from banks tightening their lending criteria, according to a report called U.S. Housing and Mortgage Trends.

    The report released this week by CoreLogic, a provider of consumer, financial and property information and analysis, presented data that shows during the collapse of the housing market the credit requirements tightened for loans with lower loan to value ratios that typically are provided by conventional banks. The percent of lower FICO scores represented by borrowers of such privately underwritten mortgages dropped from 18 percent in 2005 to 2 percent in 2010.

    Over the same period the percent of Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgages issued to borrowers with less than stellar credit grew from 6 percent to 23 percent.

    "Much of the risk has shifted from the conventional space to the FHA segment,but this is unsustainable longer-term," the report says. The report observed that the FHA and government sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that play a vital role in creating a secondary market for mortgages "have adjusted their pricing to reflect the increased risk in the market, which makes it more expensive for borrowers to finance a home purchase or refinance."

    Leslie Berkman
    lberkman@PE.com

    ,


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    Borders bookstores in Mira Loma, Chino and Montclair will close within the coming weeks as the Michigan-based bookseller heads into Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

    Stores in Riverside, Rancho Cucamonga and Rancho Mirage will remain open, at least for now.

    The Borders Group, which operates about 650 Borders and Waldenbooks locations around the country, announced today it has filed for bankruptcy after earlier rounds of store closures, layoffs and other belt-tightening failed to combat a downturn in business from a bad economy and increasing competition from Amazon and other sources.

    As part of the reorganization, the company said it will close 200 stores nationwide. Thirty-five of them are slated for California.

    Inland Borders bookstores scheduled to close are in the Chino Spectrum Town Center, Chino; Eastvale Gateway in Mira Loma; and Perimeter Plaza in Montclair. The stores will be shuttered by the end of April, the company said.

    Stores in several high profile areas are scheduled to close, including Borders stores in Glendale near the Galleria, in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, and in San Francisco's Union Square.

    --Tiffany Ray
    tray@PE.com



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    David Salazar has worked in the health care and information technology fields, and he's been a commercial real estate operator at several companies for well over a decade.

    Now he's going out on his own. Salazar has started The Salazar Group, which for now has an Orange County address but will eventually branch out and open an Inland location. He recently left the his managing partner post at the Ontario office of Cresa Partners after a tenure of more than three years. He began operating on Feb. 1.

    Before that, Salazar spent 10 years with C.B. Richard Ellis.

    Cresa Partners' niche was representing tenants, and Salazar said he expects his new firm to do the same kind of work. He'll be specializing in companies who want industrial space somewhere between 150,000 and 250,000 square feet, which is considered midrange in the industry.

    "After 13 years and a billion dollars worth of deals, I think I can do this on my own," Salazar said.

    Jack Katzanek
    jkatzanek@PE.com


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