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?

Real estate developer Bill Robinson tells me he's already cashed in on the land play in the town of Maricopa, selling 17 parcels in recent months. He's now setting his sights on Gila Bend.

"This is where the future is," he says. "This is a great place for the small investor who can't afford Phoenix and Maricopa."

The real estate speculation sweeping through Gila Bend is affecting local residents in different ways, depending on the location and use of property in question.

Gila Bend's the classic Arizona desert outpost, but that's changing
John Dougherty
Gila Bend's the classic Arizona desert outpost, but that's changing
Real estate development attorney John DiTullio
John Dougherty
Real estate development attorney John DiTullio

Landowners along the town's main drag want to make a killing before selling their property. They are holding on for pie-in-the-sky prices knowing it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"Some of these people have kept this land for years," explains Stacy Young, Gila Bend's economic development coordinator. "Then, when they see a possibility of growth, they get all excited. They think their property is so valuable that it's worth Phoenix prices."

But for small business owner John Augsberger, the surge in commercial real estate values is threatening to bankrupt his small, seasonal business about a mile from downtown. The retired Navy veteran opened Augie's Quail Trail RV Park a few years ago.

Augsberger says the County Assessor's Office raised the full cash value on his 43-acre trailer park this year from $216,000 to $886,000. As a result, he's looking at sharply higher property taxes.

"This is just nuts," he says. "I can't pay the property taxes."

While Augsberger frets about higher taxes, real estate agents such as McClure and Bjork are cashing in on commissions from selling the same land over and over again. McClure says acreage on the outskirts of town has sold three times in the past six months. She shows me on a map where she says the best land deal in town is located -- five acres for $100,000 just south of the interstate.

I jump into my truck and drive the short distance to inspect the "prime" property that I was told is nestled between three mountain ranges and surrounded by state land.

Well, yes, there are three mountain ranges, but they are a good 10 miles away at best. Other than a few scattered greasewood plants, the parcel is devoid of vegetation. There is no water or power -- or neighbors, for that matter.

I don't get out of the truck. It's time to find a local bar to get the real lowdown on Gila Bend.

There is only one place to throw back a cold one in Gila Bend -- Beto's Passtime Bar. A cinderblock bunker with no windows and a giant satellite dish outside, Beto's appears to have weathered more than its share of brawls over the years. I wander in and find a couple of retired good ol' boys at the bar and a friendly bartender and proprietor named Ernesto.

I soon get an earful about how the local businesses rip off residents for everything from groceries to car parts. There's a round of bitching about a couple of old-time families that have most of the political power in town, followed by an earnest discussion about the possibility of Luke Air Force Base moving its flight operations to an auxiliary airfield south of town.

I head over to the town council meeting. A couple of well-dressed lackeys for developers make a pitch to the all-male council to create a "community facilities district" that would sell bonds to cover the cost of building roads, sewers and water distribution systems for the planned subdivisions.

DiTullio, the development attorney, tells the council that he has builders poised to construct a residential subdivision and commercial project called Saguaro Ranch on 360 acres adjacent to downtown Gila Bend.

"This could be the first new significant project in town," he says. "We are very optimistic about getting this land sold to developers and getting the project done."

Mayor Daniel Birchfield appears interested, but skeptical. He tells me later that the council has heard these promises before but no one has yet broken ground on a new major development.

"We deal with people all the time, and they roll over their property and we don't see them again," Birchfield says. "We eventually will have our boom. We just don't know when."

When that happens, even though there's no doubt Gila Bend could use a makeover, I'll be sad to see this sliver of rusted-out Old Arizona fade away and be replaced by more soulless suburbia.

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