Gila Bend's the classic Arizona desert outpost, but that's changing
John Dougherty

Gila Bound

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.


Gila Bend

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.

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.

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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