Proximity to Nevada, Arizona holds town back
The marquee of the abandoned Masonic Lodge on Broadway welcomes visitors to Needles. The border city hopes to improve its image and hold onto businesses in the face of economic competition from Arizona and Nevada.
By JACOB QUINN SANDERS, Staff Writer
San Bernardino County Sun
NEEDLES - Drive down Broadway at night and the two brightest lights illuminate the same word a few blocks apart: liquor.
On a block between those signs, the old Masonic Lodge sits empty, having failed in its most recent incarnation as a movie theater. Ceiling tiles hang obliquely, hemorrhaging asbestos over boxes, scattered wood, a disused popcorn machine and an organ lying sideways.
This is not the image the city wants to project. Officials here want to bring in businesses and jobs and tourists.
Every few years, they try another idea to pull it off.
Every few years, nothing much changes.
Ask around and you will hear a consistent explanation: It's an accident of geography.
Across the Colorado River from Needles are Arizona and Nevada, with minimum wages $1.60 an hour lower than in California, cheaper workers' compensation premiums and gas almost a dollar less per gallon. California offers no exemptions to its laws to border cities trying to compete economically.
Needles knows this.
But as much as the 5,000 people who live here think about it and try to change it, they have more pressing priorities.
The city can't enforce an uncounted number of its ordinances because the cost of staffing and litigating against those who would fight back is too high. Standardized test scores in the Needles Unified School District are below county and state averages. Jobs are scarce and a livable wage, many times, is even more so.
The nicest new development in town, the one between the municipal golf course and the Colorado River, sprays the grass green on its gateway street. A new local hardware store is cause for unguarded excitement.
The pending departure of the Washington Mutual bank branch here the news leapt around town one recent Friday brought the executive director of the Needles Chamber of Commerce to tears and inspired unspoken expletives in the city's community development director.
For some of the people, it's enough to stab back at California in small ways, such as buying their gas in Arizona or Nevada, which means the pollutants California legislated out of its pumps come in anyway. Or it means smoking in the two bars here, also against California law but legal in Arizona and Nevada.
"It's tough," said Nita Claypool, 69, whose last name is one of the most widely recognized in town.
Last May, she and her husband, Bill Claypool, closed the last of the family's eponymous grocery and general stores that had existed in three states. The first opened in Needles in 1911, the year before Arizona won statehood.
"I'm third generation in this business, and the fourth generation just wasn't interested," Bill Claypool, 81, said.
The sign on the building at Broadway and E streets still says "Claypool's" and no one quite knows what will take its place.
"This is a prime entry corridor through Needles and we have got to do something to clean it up," said Sharon Mayes-Atkinson, the city's community development director. "More than that, though, we have to make it a destination. People have to want to come down here."
Some relief could come courtesy of Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia, who represents Needles in the Legislature's lower house. He has spoken with the state Energy Department and the California Environmental Protection Agency seeking a waiver of or exemption from emissions and gas-additive regulations.
"The air-quality issue holds no water in a place like that," Maze said. "People can and will go across the river to get cheaper gas, then all the bad stuff comes in anyway."
He said he planned to introduce a bill allowing remote community college campuses to offer four-year degrees and looked forward to resuming discussion on workers' compensation legislation that was tabled in the Assembly last week.
Also on his agenda is helping broker a deal with the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe and the state Lands Commission to make a silted-over Colorado River inlet available for recreational use.
"We need to identify places like Needles as really a gateway entrance to California," Maze said, "and I think the state is capable of recognizing that."
Laughlin, Nev., and its casinos, nightclubs and all-night bars are 27 miles away. Bullhead City, Ariz., and its retailers are 22 miles away. The joke in Needles is that the only reason people get off Interstate 40 here to get gas is because they don't know any better.
In the meantime, Mayes-Atkinson said, the city is considering building an office park and trying to find tenants itself.
The development of 70 homes already under construction and the groundbreaking in March on a few dozen senior-citizens condominiums bode well for the city.
Mayes-Atkinson knows that residential development is hard-pressed to generate enough money for cities to cover the services they demand, but Needles owns all local utilities except the gas company and has extra capacity on its waste-treatment plant.
Still, Sue Godnick is nervous. She moved here from Temecula almost 15 years ago and has worked for the Needles Chamber of Commerce for the last eight, becoming executive director less than two years ago.
She saw the city try to woo retailers Target and Wal-Mart, only to have both open stores in Bullhead City. When she heard Washington Mutual and its eight jobs would pull out in May, she called it a "crisis."
"When somebody comes to town, the appearance is that we're losing business," she said, her eyes wet and red after hearing about the bank. "First impressions are hard on some of these people."
Mayes-Atkinson, who also handles code enforcement, has made a concerted effort to change those impressions. Painting curbs, cleaning sidewalks, trying to remove or refurbish eyesore buildings.
Downtown, along Route 66, the El Garces train station has received millions of dollars in grants and donations as the city tries to restore it.
Every day, the same homeless man spends much of the day in the adjoining park, sitting on the bench in front of the World War I memorial.
West along Front Street from the train station, dilapidated, crumbling houses rot. Of the city's $22 million annual budget, $35,000 goes toward tearing down unsafe buildings.
"That's one, maybe two buildings a year," Mayes-Atkinson said. "And I consider code enforcement one of our highest priorities."
As she drove her Mercury Grand Marquis east along Broadway, she grumbled as she passed a succession of billboards, one of which read, "You think it's hot here? God."
"Putting up a billboard in Needles is illegal," she said. "I suppose we could order them taken down or sue the owners, but we can't afford it. We just have other things we have to do first."
Beyond first impressions, geography plays a tremendous role.
"It's really the lack of other small towns in close proximity," Godnick said. "Blythe is 110 miles away, Ludlow doesn't count, Barstow is 150 miles away, Essex doesn't count. You can put your store in Bullhead City where there is a growing population and more people, and the folks from Needles will shop there anyway."
And while decrying geography is the easiest and most common issue when assessing Needles' challenges, it is not the only way to go.
David Hayes bought talk radio station KTOX-AM (1340) in 1997 for $200,000 cash. A former record company owner in Orange County, he was removed enough to speak his mind and not concern himself too deeply with whom he might offend. Over his shoulder as he spoke was a poster of four American Indians holding rifles with the caption, "Homeland Security, fighting terrorism since 1492."
Hayes, 43, joined the Needles Economic Development Corp. even though he lives in Fort Mohave, Ariz., and gave Mayes-Atkinson her largest pipe-dream: a public river-walk from one end of town to the other.
"I could give you the politically correct answer that all our problems are because we're in California," he said, sitting in his small studio surrounded by CDs, extraterrestrial-themed merchandise and Marlboro smoke. "But for a long time there was a feeling here perpetuated by people like the Claypools that this was our river, our town, and anyone from the outside should pack up and get out of here."
One of the reasons to have hope for Needles, he said, is the softening of those attitudes.
His focus is on building a sustainable tourist culture here, attracting movie production companies and exploiting the city's Route 66 heritage. One idea is designing each block of Broadway in the style of a different decade, beginning in the 1930s.
"Can you imagine this place with a drive-in theater?" he asked excitedly. "My God. It would be amazing."
WORD OF MOUTH
For now, at least, the city's goals are smaller. Gary Reed decided to move his hardware store here from Bullhead City in August and city officials rejoiced.
"They didn't have one when I got here," Reed, 62, said.
He said the city moved all his applications through the system quickly and showed it was an accommodating place for a small business.
"Sales are growing and I've had a real good experience with the customers here, and so much of it is word-of-mouth," he said.
He sees reason for concern and understands why Needles has its skeptics, based both on its history and what he has seen himself.
"It feels like we're our own little nation separated from everything and I think sometimes that we ought to secede and take care of this ourselves," he said. "Of course, I could be wrong, too."