Gila Bound

In its way, hellish Gila Bend's in a real estate boom like the rest of the county. Could it be Phoenix's next big bedroom community?

You'd think that the great real estate boom engulfing the Phoenix metropolitan area would bypass the dusty, decrepit town of Gila Bend.

The main drag bisecting this wayside of about 2,000 folks 60 miles southwest of downtown Phoenix is littered with crumbling commercial buildings, abandoned motor inns, half a dozen service stations and a couple of tire-repair joints.

A melting, two-story adobe hotel marks the center of the downtown business district. It was once the, um, grande dame of Gila Bend but is closed for renovations. The desolate business district reeks of desperation and determination to survive in the harshest of conditions.

The town is a testament to the stout character of the hardy souls who have squeezed out a living in a desert landscape devoid of obvious sustenance. It screams of the rugged frontier and the Old West, where the Butterfield Overland Mail Company's stagecoaches once made regular stops.

This isn't a place for metrosexual wimps accustomed to five-syllable coffee drinks. There's no parlor for young hipsters craving their next tattoo -- unless you count Lewis State Prison a few miles up the road.

The town survives on tourists forced to stop just long enough to blow $50 on gas and another $20 on junk food before zipping out of town. Fortunately for the locals, millions of tourists do this each year on their way to the far more desirable locales of Rocky Point and San Diego.

Perched at 735 feet above sea level in one of the hottest stretches of desert on Earth, Gila Bend is the classic Arizona hellhole. There's no bullshit about Gila Bend. It's a dump, and everyone knows it.

But even Gila Bend is going the way of other edgy rural towns that not so long ago were scattered across the outback of Maricopa County. Towns like Queen Creek, Buckeye and Surprise.

Even the old University of Arizona experimental farming town of Maricopa is undergoing the convulsions of instant development with its pop-up, palm-tree-lined subdivisions seducing thousands of new residents seeking more house for their bucks.

That their savings will be fleeting, since any money pocketed on lower mortgage payments might soon be wiped out by countless hours in traffic gridlock, is lost on the residents who flock to such outposts.

What I'm getting at is, it's only a matter of time before Gila Bend is enmeshed in Arizona's real estate juggernaut. Speculators fronted by their Phoenix powerhouse law firms are beginning to move in.

They are coming for one reason: Gila Bend, at the crossroads of State Highway 85 and Interstate 8, has astoundingly low real estate prices compared to the rest of the county.

Housing values leaped an average of 52 percent throughout Maricopa County last year to an average median price of $192,000, according to the Maricopa County Assessor's Office.

Ahwatukee led the way with an astounding 69 percent increase in assessed value, with the median-priced home now valued at $272,000.

At the other end of the spectrum is long-neglected Gila Bend, where home values increased 6 percent to a median price of $50,000.

"The smart investors are out there," says John DiTullio, a real estate development attorney with Gallagher & Kennedy, one of the largest law firms in Phoenix.

"The town is tired of being considered a dusty truck stop, and it is trying to attract some capital out there and some investment," he says. "We'll see what happens."

There already are signs of transformation. The national chains have moved in -- McDonald's, Burger King and Subway all have stores. RadioShack is scouting for a location, and a couple of new motels have opened or been refurbished.

The parking lot to the town's landmark business -- the Space Age Lodge and Restaurant -- is packed with customers day and night. The venerable motor inn is now part of the Best Western hotel chain and offers free high-speed, wireless Internet.

Local real estate agents are thrilled over the tsunami of development they claim is poised to sweep through town. They note that even though Gila Bend's residential property values only increased by 6 percent, that's a hell of a lot better than in many locales in the United States where property values are stagnant or dropping.

In its way, Gila Bend, like the rest of Maricopa County before it, is on the verge of a boom. Indeed, what's already happening may even constitute a boom for this greasy wide spot in the road.

"We are where the baby boomers will want to retire," gushes Elizabeth McClure, a real estate agent with Gila Bend Realty, whose husband, Steven McClure, also happens to be the Gila Bend town attorney.

Developers are also positioning the town to be another big bedroom community for Phoenix -- which, sadly, isn't that far-fetched. It's only a few miles farther from Phoenix's downtown than Apache Junction or Casa Grande.

McClure's partner, Linda Bjork, points to two recent development agreements as proof of Gila Bend's emergence.

The Sonoran Trails subdivision eight miles north of what passes for downtown Gila Bend has received approval to build 6,000 homes over 2,300 acres. Meanwhile, developers have secured the right to convert 10,000 acres of farmland on the vast Paloma Ranch that straddles Interstate 8 a few miles west of town. The plan calls for converting cotton fields into 60,000 homes. Gila Bend has strip-annexed both planned subdivisions into the town that now covers 38 square miles.

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