After more than 40 years, Ventura County has opted out of the mineral bath business--a business it never intended to be in--by auctioning off the historic Matilija Hot Springs for $546,000.
The 9.5-acre property, which the county acquired in 1947 and kept as a park, was sold Tuesday to Fritz Boyce, a writer and designer from Malibu, who said he plans to keep it open to the public.
"I go with my passions," said Boyce, a tall, lean white-haired Boston native who has lived in California with his wife Katie, a former model, for 11 years. "I had gone by Matilija a few times and fell in love with it."
Boyce was one of a handful of serious bidders who joined a crowd at the county Board of Supervisors' weekly meeting for the special auction. The sale was called for in November after county officials, who were owed $40,000 to $50,000 in lease payments, decided the park was too small to keep.
Since December, more than 200 people expressed interest in purchasing the hot springs and 30 prospective buyers toured the grounds, Larrilyn Bangs, an employee at Matilija Hot Springs, said. But by Tuesday, only five had submitted written bids.
Highest Written Bid
The highest written bid was $382,000. The opening oral bid from the audience was $401,100 and closed with Boyce's $546,000 offering.
"I really bought this for my children," Boyce said. "We'd love to live up there and raise a family. My wife is a painter and my daughter wants a horse. We really just want to get away from the frenetic L.A. life."
Boyce said he plans to enhance the hot springs in "every way," sprucing up the tumbledown site and reopening its restaurant.
According to Ron Brazill of the county Public Works Agency, Boyce has the option to close the spa to the public and make the property his home. The supervisors agreed Tuesday morning to sell the property "as is" with no restrictions on the future use of the land.
"It seems like it belongs to the public," Boyce said. "It's an enchanting place. We'll try to get the maximum use of it. I want to make it physically more appealing. But it will continue on as it is until we can pull it together. I want to keep it open to the public to contribute to our income."
Boyce said he is a writer, having done pieces for Reader's Digest, scripts for children's TV, educational books and films. The Malibu resident started his own women's sportswear business, he said, which is manufactured under the label "Fritz."
"I'm constantly into some creative side of myself," he said. "If it's in you, you have to keep bringing it up."
Matilija Hot Springs stirs his creative side, Boyce said.
"I go up there and I start shaking," he said. "I walked the property and immediately saw what I wanted to do design-wise. It's another creative vision. There's so much Indian heritage. It brings that out in me."
On Tuesday morning, Bill Olivas, the spa's proprietor since 1965, stood before the supervisors and gave an emotional farewell to the land he and his family had spent much of their lives on.
Olivas' father was a stagecoach driver who would cart visitors to Matilija from the Ojai and Ventura train depots. And Olivas himself recalls bathing in the pools of the hot springs as a child.
"Whoever is bidding this morning, I hope they will look at the potential of Matilija Hot Springs as a health spa as it was founded in 1872," said Olivas. "There's a need for this type of therapy in the Ojai area."
As the bids Tuesday topped $430,000, Boyce and one other potential buyer, Ho Chang who represented a Los Angeles firm, were the sole bidders, dueling and out-pricing each other while Supervisor John Flynn acted as auctioneer--and salesman.
Anecdotes Woven In
Each time a bid was given, Flynn would entice the buyers to go higher by offering fresh anecdotes of the wonderful, serene qualities of Matilija. "Describe the sound of the water," Flynn suggested to Olivas. "It's music to the ears. What's your bid sir?"
"411,000? I guess my comments on the hot springs aren't making much of an impact. Do any bidders want a cup of coffee?" Flynn joked.
But Boyce held out. When his offer was accepted, he threw his arms in the air and hugged his wife and friend, Linda Dove, who sat by his side and conferred with him during the bidding.
"I really wanted that man (Ho Chang) to go home," Boyce said grimacing, after he signed the Matilija deed. "I wanted to pay $150,000."
County officials expressed surprise that the property fetched as much as $546,000.
Blake Boyle, who supervises recreational services for the county's General Services Agency, said, "We were sitting around this morning trying to guess what price it would go for, like watching the morning line in Santa Anita.
"One guy said $500,000, and we laughed," he said. "I think we were very pleasantly surprised. We complimented John Flynn on his auctioneering ability."