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Immigrant entrepreneurs leverage determination, Sikh network to transform local properties

Opportunities for advancement were slim back home in the Punjab region of northern India. Higher education was of limited use, as families typically chose between farming and hauling agricultural products to market.

For those able to immigrate to the United States, however, entrepreneurial prospects opened wide. Family members who had already settled in California were often able to provide jobs that, with hard work and careful money management, might enable a small business investment, then another somewhere else.

This pattern, repeated often in Kern County's Sikh community, may soon produce some very noticeable changes around Bakersfield. A group of investors with diverse if sometimes checkered histories in local business are working on a series of real estate projects to crown their earlier investments.

Three Sikh entrepreneurs — two of them local plus one in the Seattle area whose various investments include the Haberfelde building in downtown Bakersfield and a truck stop in Lost Hills — are working to overhaul the nearly vacant former Kmart shopping center on Wilson Road. If all goes well, the supermarket they hope to establish there will be expanded to east Bakersfield, and possibly beyond.

The project is one of several developments spearheaded by Jay "Bobby" Singh and his business partners, commercial real estate agent Pinder Behniwal and their associate in Washington state, Balbir Singh.

Jay is an almond grower in Wasco and Pixley who also goes by the name Jobanjit. He and Behniwal are working with a fellow Sikh investor to build a truck stop on 20 acres near Highway 99 and Merced Avenue. Jay also has ambitions to build an apartment complex on Bakersfield's west side near Stockdale Highway.

The three men have gotten as far as they have by taking incremental steps, spreading from one industry to another with little or no experience but a drive to succeed in their adopted country.

"Sometimes we have no idea what we're doing," Jay Singh said, "but God blesses us a lot."

Their story reflects California's Sikh immigrant experience, said Raji Brar, whose parents came to the United States in the 1970s and lived in labor camps while working the ag fields of the Central Valley.

After saving to buy an Oildale gas station in the 1990s, the family expanded to a variety of small businesses, and now employs about 400 people in gas stations, restaurants and construction in Kern and Tulare counties.

Brar earned college degrees in chemistry and biology but ended up working for the family business alongside her husband, who does the finances, while her brother handles construction and her sister-in-law manages human resources.

"There's a true love of this country because of opportunity," Brar said. Sikhs "come from a country where you don't have opportunity. You don't even have a chance. You can go to school, but where are you going to work? There's no job for you."

Behniwal, 43, went to high school in Ventura before going into the grocery business. With his two brothers, he formed a trucking company that hauled produce across the country.

He left the grocery business to his brothers when, after witnessing Bakersfield's development boom in 2001, he started in real estate. He served as a broker in many transactions, and about two years ago was buyer's and seller's agent in Balbir Singh's purchase of the Haberfelde building for almost $3.9 million.

Jay Singh didn't arrive in the United States until 1999. His family had hauled sugar cane and rice in Punjab. His first foray into U.S. business was selling used cars and operating smog shops in Arvin, Bakersfield, Lamont and Fresno.

He parlayed his earnings into apartment complexes, as well as gas stations and homes, which he "flipped" by making improvements and reselling them at higher prices.

Business got messy at times. Jay has been formally accused of misdeeds, which he dismisses as the unfortunate result of placing his faith in less scrupulous business associates.

His state license as an advanced emission specialist was revoked in 2010 because of what regulators termed "fraudulent smog inspections." State records allege that, three years later, he and another man were videotaped doing numerous "clean–piping" jobs, in which smog test equipment was connected to one car in order to produce a passing certificate for a different vehicle.

He denies having done any dishonest smog checks, saying the state's case revolves around an incident in which a different technician used Jay's car without his permission to falsify tests. "I wasn't there," he said.

Jay also is co-defendant in a lawsuit pending in Kern County Superior Court. The complaint by PNC Equipment Finance LLC accuses him and Tejpal Singh, from whom Jay bought an apartment complex years before, of failing to make promised payments for two Volvo trucks. Filed in early September, the suit asks for $94,965 plus interest and attorneys' fees.

Jay says he had nothing to do with the purchase of the trucks, and that he was involved only as the victim of identity theft. His signature on the truck loan agreement was forged, he said: "It's not mine."

Escrow on the Kmart shopping center — the three investors' most visible project to date in Kern County — closed June 1. Their investment entity, B & H Group Inc., took out a loan and paid Kmart $5.25 million for the property.

What makes the project so notable is that the property has been in decline for years. The biggest blow came when Kmart vacated the property last year, followed by the exit of the adjacent Big Lots. Only a few tenants remain on the site.

The plan, Jay and Behniwal said, is to put in an indoor-outdoor banquet hall that will share the former Kmart building with the supermarket, which they envision as an internationally flavored store with a food court and a pharmacy.

There will be a gym at the former Big Lots, they said, and new professional offices. Existing tenants including the Golden Ox Diner will be allowed to say, they added, and a Dairy Queen will be built near Wilson Road. The entire property is to be renovated in a process they expect to take more than a year.

A new hotel will be constructed in a vacant lot just north of the shopping center, they said.

Behniwal expects to take the lead on the supermarket development because of his experience in the industry. But he said other projects that members of the investor group have done were not always as carefully thought out.

"(You) jump into the unknown without knowing how deep it is, how dark it is," he said. "Then you learn as you go."

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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