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Piru Looks to Its Past to Secure a Better Future

Redevelopment: A $2.2-million project will create a town square with a replica 1800s rail depot. The town hopes to draw visitors from L.A.

June 25, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's easy to forget about Piru.

Long overshadowed by neighboring Fillmore, this dusty town of 1,800 had its heyday as a bustling railroad stop more than a century ago.

In recent decades it has looked more like an abandoned Mayberry, its quaint Main Street lined with boarded-up shops and lunch counters.

Motorists whiz by on California 126 never knowing the community near Magic Mountain exists. But Santa Clara Valley tourism promoters say that this is about to change.

Construction workers are halfway through building a $2.2-million Town Square, complete with a replica of an 1800s railroad depot, community fountain and bandstand gazebo.

Plans also call for a 2 1/2-mile bike path connecting Piru with Rancho Camulos, an authentic Mexican rancho that inspired Helen Hunt Jackson's epic romance novel "Ramona."

Once construction is complete, the Fillmore & Western Railroad will send turn-of-the-century locomotives to town, linking it once again with Fillmore and Santa Paula.

In addition to serving as the community's formal gathering spot, Town Square is envisioned as the primary entry point for visitors to the area. Organizers hope to lure day-trippers from Los Angeles.

"It's the biggest project in Piru in decades," said Monica Nolan, an analyst with Ventura County's redevelopment agency. "We're looking at this as the kick-start to reinvigorate the community."

People are already taking notice. Nolan said a businessman is interested in buying and upgrading the aging 10-room Round Rock Hotel. Overnight accommodations are needed for a planned equestrian center to be located nearby, she said.

The county redevelopment agency is financing the project, using a combination of state and federal grants and loans. Piru is unincorporated and falls under the county's planning jurisdiction.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to approve the sale of $750,000 in tax bonds today to cover the county's portion of construction costs. Officials expect the project to be completed by October.

Efforts to revitalize the town began after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which severely damaged many homes and businesses in Piru's predominantly low-income, Latino neighborhoods.

The county declared the devastated area a redevelopment zone and began making plans for its restoration.

"Following the earthquake, all of that downtown area was boarded up. We red-tagged it," said Supervisor Kathy Long, who represents Piru. "So this is still climbing out of that earthquake."

Piru is often selected as a location by filmmakers looking for an old-fashioned town. But county officials believe they can bring in more tourists by emphasizing the railroad and the Old West past of the towns dotting the bucolic Santa Clara Valley.

"We did an analysis and it said people increasingly are interested in historical tourism," Long said. "We figure we could attract up to a half-million visitors to the Santa Clara Valley a year if we do this right."

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