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National Perspective | LIFESTYLE

Desert Town in Arizona Is Being Sold as Future Boomtown, With Special Glow

June 25, 1998|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WINTERSBURG, Ariz. — Pennie Robinson halts her hand in mid-sweep. Pointing out the town landmarks, she's gotten as far as the Hamburger Barn before a dust devil whirls into the parking lot. She pauses to windshield-wipe the grit from her face, and her hand continues its virtual tour.

The town--her town--is for sale. And it's taking Robinson's most energetic pitch to recast the dusty hamlet from dot-on-the-map to next-great-boomtown. Robinson, who speaks of "packaging" her 52 acres in the desert 40 miles west of Phoenix for quick sale to a rich entrepreneur, is an energetic booster of Wintersburg. But the fact that it's nestled up against the sprawling Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station makes it something of a tough sell.

Robinson, however, is undeterred. She gazes across the scrubby desert, remarking on the "beauty" of the nuclear plant's three pudgy white containment towers and speaking with fondness of the surreal light the facility throws off at night.

The de facto mayor of the town and its 50 residents, Robinson says it's just a matter of time before Wintersburg is snapped up. In fact, she regards this as such a hot deal that she's crunching the numbers to raise the asking price from $1.87 million to a figure more in keeping with its real value.

Possibly working against a quick sale is the town motto: "Wintersburg--Conveniently located in the middle of nowhere."

Like many small western towns, Wintersburg is defined by its single traffic light and one tentative intersection. All told, the town is a block long. It lies four miles south of Interstate 10, but the Los Angeles-bound traffic screams by without pause. There are no signs announcing Wintersburg.

Robinson, 53, is Wintersburg's visionary. She bought the general store and RV park two years ago and began dreaming "what-if." She bought the Boondocks Bar, instituted a happy hour and brought in live music on the weekends ("Lisa Michele and Country Rein").

It was Robinson who had the vision to build the hamburger stand. To upgrade the feed store and add a laundry at the RV park. To rent videos at the store and offer UPS service.

She was set on bringing the city's amenities to Wintersburg. Why not build a golf course? Surround it with custom homes. Add a steakhouse.

She understood that the Palo Verde plant, with its 2,200 workers, would be a captive audience for her "convenience" store. Indeed, during the twice-daily shift changes, the store is so clogged with six-pack purchasers that she brings in two extra checkers and an additional cash register.

Tacked on a wall behind one register is an evacuation map to be used in case of a nuclear "event." The map shows concentric circles radiating from the plant, outward for 10 miles. Someone has taken a red marker and placed a dot on the map representing the store: It looks like a bull's-eye.

Some of the plant employees rent space in the RV park. Many are loyal patrons of the bar, the only one for 20 miles.

Robinson and her husband, Francis--"Call me Rob"--own everything in Wintersburg. They extend credit at the general store and have erected a bulletin board that serves as the town water cooler--a meeting place for gossip--and source of all classified ads.

Robinson jokes that she's made her husband the mayor for this week--she's too busy herself. Asked if the mayor has the authority to perform marriages, she roars with laughter.

"Oh yeah, we're marrying people right and left," she says. "Last night in the Boondocks, it was more like divorcing people, the way they were carrying on."

The Robinsons have been married for 30 years, and after decades in Phoenix, Wintersburg became their oasis. But they ruined all that peace with their own success.

"We go out the door every morning and we're running four businesses, we don't have a life," Robinson said, lounging on a bench in front of the general store. From there, she greets every customer and has a private word or two with some who seek her advice.

But now the couple want to sell out and move to northern Arizona, where it's less crowded.

Rob, 54, weaves his four-wheel-drive through a sandy wash as he conducts a tour of 37 undeveloped acres behind the Wintersburg General Store and next to the Stage Stop RV Park.

"This here's the Wintersburg Driving Range, open on request," he says, looking out the window at dirt and scrub and laughing.

He stops to point out a neon-yellow golf ball sitting beside a mesquite bush. In the back of his truck are rubber mats and swatches of Astro Turf--materials for the driving range's tees.

"You know, there's really no limit to what could be done out here," Pennie Robinson pipes in from the back seat. "I really don't think the power plant is the problem."

With that, she glances back at the three towers that dominate the horizon. In her mind, Wintersburg has a glowing future.

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