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'Big Ideas' Wither in Desert Town

The remote community struggles with chronic financial problems, with no easy solutions in sight.

September 23, 2003|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

BLYTHE, Calif. — Pat Wolfe told them it was a bad idea to build a power plant at the end of the airport's runway, but city boosters laughed him off as uninformed.

They aren't laughing any more. Wolfe's plane nearly flipped during a landing approach in the spring that coincided with a test firing of the $370-million plant.

The potential threat to aviation is under investigation. The power plant, originally billed as a lucrative solution to this remote desert community's chronic financial problems, has been mothballed because California has more power than it needs.

It's a debacle as distressing and predictable as the heat that bakes the surrounding cotton and alfalfa fields this time of year.

There has always been a mirage of impending boom times in Blythe, where the unemployment rate is about 21% and city fathers are fond of saying that better times are right around the corner.

The trouble at the airport follows a dreary pattern stretching back to 1987. Then, the city begged for the state to build prisons here, hoping that would spark a renaissance of more and better restaurants, shopping facilities, housing and medical care in the city that existed for years as a gas and food stop on Interstate 10, about 200 miles east of Los Angeles.

Two prisons were eventually built 20 miles out of town. But they provide only modest benefits because half of their employees would rather live 100 miles away in the Palm Springs area.

The last few years have been especially tough in the isolated city of 22,000 people, about 8,000 of whom are inmates.

The number of supermarkets has dropped from three to one. An experimental private, four-year university is considering folding because of a lack of interest.

Six months ago, the local hospital closed its maternity ward because of staffing shortages. Last month, the editor of the local newspaper, the Palo Verde Valley Times, pleaded guilty in Texas to 13-year-old child custody charges.

Now many farmers want to sell their water to the Metropolitan Water District, raising fears that the region's century-old agricultural base is on the verge of collapse.

And, adding insult to injury, foul odors emitted by the deteriorating municipal sewer system are backing up into the vents of homes and businesses.

The city intended to upgrade its rotting sewer system with tax increments generated by the power plant.

As long as the plant remains inactive, the city expects lower tax benefits than were anticipated.

Despite all that, city officials accept their situation blithely.

"I think we've finally turned the corner," said Blythe City Manager Les Nelson, who lives in Palm Springs. "Just wait and see."


'The Way It Is'

Blythe is buzzing with improvement plans. City officials are telling anyone who will listen that "first-class developers" are poised to build residential homes along the Colorado River.

A classy restaurant will soon grace the local golf course.

A lonely 3-acre lagoon known as Queshan Park -- the first thing westbound travelers see in California after crossing the Arizona Border -- will be transformed into a bustling recreation area.

The region's first new subdivisions in years are sprouting up on farmlands that once produced lettuce, melons and cabbage.

This year, the city is spending $4 million on a beautification project along its main drag, Hobsonway.

But tearing up and then repaving the highway has brought hard times to small businesses with narrow profit margins, such as Dottie Hoover's beauty salon, the Creative Curl.

"It's extremely hard to stay in business in this town," said Hoover, 35, as she teased a customer's hair.

"Lately, it seems things have gotten worse than ever," she said. "Just a few days ago, my 15-year-old daughter, who wants to be a teacher, said, 'It's time to leave this place, Mom.' It's getting to the point where I'm almost agreeing with her."

Hoover's complaints echo those of local farming industry officials, who shake their heads in dismay over a series of failed efforts to transform Blythe into another Palm Springs.

As one said: "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's a still a pig. Some of us are happy living in Blythe just the way it is."

"There's always been folks coming into town with big ideas about getting rich quick, and then taking it easy," said Ed Smith, general manager of the powerful Palo Verde Irrigation District, which enjoys top priority water rights claims to Colorado River water. "But they all learn the hard way that there's not enough business to sustain such things here."

All agree, however, that Blythe, which is about half Latino and has an average household income of $32,387 a year, compared with $42,887 for Riverside County, desperately needs an economic boost.

There are not many jobs outside of the fast-food stands, gas stations and motels along "hamburger row," a nickname for Lovekin Boulevard, the exit from I-10.


Not Much to Do

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