LOMPOC, Calif. — Gene Stevens winces at the mere suggestion that some people may think of Lompoc as just another prison town. The news from Lompoc's federal prison lately is almost all bad. Guards want the warden fired. Prisoners are fighting the guards. And the FBI is investigating it all.
But Stevens doesn't really pay attention. He says people in Lompoc don't think much about the prison, no matter what is going on there. Sure, it provides some local jobs, as does the sprawling Vandenberg Air Force Base adjoining the town. But that's about it.
When people think of Lompoc, Stevens says, he believes they think of flowers and the spectacular murals that have turned Lompoc's downtown into an outdoor art gallery.
Stevens, 74, loves this town, and it shows on the tour he's providing. He arrived in Lompoc in 1958, when the town had 6,000 people and not a single stoplight. He was mayor four times, editor of the Lompoc Record and a professor at Allan Hancock College.
But it's the Lompoc Mural Project, founded by Stevens and his wife, Judy, in 1988, that remains his passion.
"Nobody can even see the prison. It's hidden from view by a stand of oaks and eucalyptus trees," said Stevens, heading out of town toward the estuary of the Santa Ynez River where it meets the blustery waves and winds of Lompoc's Ocean Park.
The Mural Project started at a time when old downtowns were dying all over the country. Lompoc was no different.
"The mural program has been one of our greatest civic successes," Stevens said. "But that's because we pull together here so well. To me, this place is paradise."
Most recently, at a California Mural and Tourism Symposium, Lompoc was proclaimed the "most successful mural city" in California. The symposium took place in Lindsay, one of many California cities whose mural programs have been helped by Lompoc's example.
About 40 giant murals dominate downtown, all paid for by donations raised by the Lompoc Mural Society. Businesses also have commissioned their own works. There are maybe 100 murals now, large and small, splashed across everything from alleyways to government buildings.
"My wife and I got the idea in 1988 when we were visiting a little town called Chemainus in British Columbia," Stevens said. "It was a town of only 3,500, and it was dying because its major industry had shut down. The mural program there brought in a couple hundred thousand tourists and saved the town."
Times also were tough in Lompoc. As shopping centers were springing up on the outskirts of the city, Stevens called a town meeting, and residents approved the mural project as an approach to economic recovery.
"We've made a strong comeback here, but it could be a lot stronger," Stevens said. "There's plenty of space for more murals."
Not Seeking Change
Lompoc is a city of 43,000 people about 20 miles off U.S. Highway 101 in northwest Santa Barbara County.
This is a city without a Macy's or a Robinsons-May, without a Hilton or a Marriott. But Santa Maria isn't too far down the road, and you can always head there if you are looking for a slightly more upscale touch.
"We think the murals are a help in drawing people here," Mayor Dick DeWees said. "We already have a lot of people who are commuting to Santa Barbara. But we aren't a town that's looking for a big change. I would like to see some more mom-and-pop boutiques in the downtown area -- that sort of thing."
The murals contrast dramatically with the old downtown, following historic themes that collectively tell the city's story.
"Temperance," one of the larger artworks, portrays the founding of Lompoc in 1874 as a temperance colony. Sheepherders used to pass this way, Stevens says. And there was one house where they always gathered to drink. Lompoc's fierce foes of alcohol, led by a woman named Mrs. J.B. Pierce, strung a rope around the house, yanked it off its foundation and pulled it for a block.
"There was a hotel that served alcohol, too," Stevens added. "They dynamited the lobby."
"Diatomaceous Mining," a 20-by-40-foot mural adorning the Chamber of Commerce building, tells another story that goes back even further. Millions of years ago, the ocean covered places like the Lompoc Valley, and the siliceous bodies of diatoms, a microscopic algae, settled at the bottom. Eventually, their bodies were compacted into diatomite, a soft rock.
"We have mined diatoms here for 110 years," Stevens said. "They are used in over 1,000 products -- everything from nail polish to the filters they use in making Budweiser beer."
The presence of Vandenberg figures into many of Lompoc's murals. One honors the Titan missile program, now close to its official end. Another portrays an amazing project completed a few times by Lompoc Valley farmers during World War II and again after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.