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Lonely Lompoc Looking for a Lift : Shuttle Woes Leave City Aiming for Tourism, Farming

August 24, 1986|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

LOMPOC — Bruce Nix is getting a little tired of this small city being declared a Space Age ghost town.

Since word came last month that the space shuttle launch complex at nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base would be put on "caretaker" status until 1992, Nix and many others here have been fighting back against the impression that this city of about 30,000 is at death's doorstep.

Downplaying the News

Despite the fact that at least several hundred jobs eventually will be lost, Nix, who is president of the Chamber of Commerce, and others have been trying to downplay the news. Without much success, they admit.

Nix, for one, seems certain that media reports have convinced the world outside this agricultural valley, about 50 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, that residents are boarding up windows and preparing for a mass exodus.

While agreeing there is some cause for worry, Nix believes the obituaries of Lompoc are premature.

"The City of Lompoc is not going to dry up and blow away. . . . I think right now the people here are concerned (about the shuttle), but if you read the paper, and the way the Lompoc Valley is being presented, it's almost like we're dead already," Nix said the other day at the supermarket he owns.

Nix is one of many residents who have been learning the price of fame.

When the Air Force began operations at Vandenberg in the late 1950s, Lompoc became inextricably linked to space and national defense. Its fortunes--real and imagined--have soared and crashed like Vandenberg's rockets and test missiles, leaving residents alternately giddy from high-flying affluence and nauseous from rapid descents into economic stagnation.

And some residents are fed up with such abrupt changes in course. They've begun looking for ways to get the city off rockets and on to a more dependable vehicle to prosperity.

Shuttle Launch Delayed

It's a way of thinking that's been reinforced by the knowledge that an important date has already come and gone. Last month Lompoc and its valley hoped to host 1 million or more visitors for the first West Coast launch of a space shuttle. That hope died with the crew of space shuttle Challenger in January's explosion.

But while there's general agreement that Lompoc--also well known for the flower-seed industry that has turned the valley into a patchwork of brightly colored fields--needs to find a new path, there is widespread disagreement about which route should be taken.

Some see this city and valley with a total population of about 50,000 as a potential mecca for tourists, industry and commuters from elsewhere in Santa Barbara County, lured by the area's comparatively cheap housing. They want to see the city attain an identity independent of Vandenberg and an economy diverse enough to survive any single source of economic turbulence. And they maintain that development already has assured that the area will be less hard hit by the shuttle cutbacks than it was when other government projects left Vandenberg.

To County Supervisor DeWayne Holmdahl, who represents the Lompoc area, the further delay of shuttle flights from Vandenberg "reinforced what we've all been saying and I've been saying it to the other supervisors, that we need something other than the military to depend on. You're always going to have this. It's always been that way."

Local real estate agent Jack Hunter is one of the many who wants to change perceptions of the city. "The outside media perceives Lompoc as this great missile complex with 200 clapboard houses around it," Hunter said. "The community is working very, very hard to change this image."

However, others say Lompoc Valley is already overbuilt and that golf courses, space museums and other projects will obliterate an agricultural oasis, destroying a rural way of life in favor of a small-scale parody of Los Angeles.

Robert Hibbits, a 77-year-old farmer whose father began farming in the valley just after the turn of the century, is one of those who prefers obscurity and agriculture to fame and growth.

"The Lompoc Valley is a small valley (about 3 miles by 10 miles) and if you're going to keep the farmland, you have to keep practically all of it. It isn't like the San Joaquin Valley or even the Salinas Valley where you have so much land you might be able to waste a little of it. . . . Of course, the history of all these good valleys is that they get covered up with houses. But somewhere along the line we hope there'll be a stopping place, and we hope that that's going to be here."

His son Art declared the issue is whether the Lompoc Valley will be known as "the valley of the flowers or the former valley of the flowers."

Said Supervisor Holmdahl: "You have a lot of people who don't want the spotlight. The interesting part about it, it's not only old-timers who don't want the spotlight, a lot of the newcomers don't want the notoriety either."

Holmdahl and Hunter are convinced that growth, in one form or another, will keep Lompoc on the map until the shuttle program gets going again.

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