April 24, 2008

Amboy's revival begins as long-closed gas station reopens

The Press-Enterprise

The pumps are running in Amboy.

Almost three years after restaurant chain owner Albert Okura bought the desert way station between Barstow and Needles on old Route 66, the gasoline pumps went to work Thursday.

Hundreds of travelers, including motorcyclists on the annual Laughlin River Run, stopped in to cool off with sodas and water and to fuel their vehicles.

Even before Okura formally reopened the restored gas station at 11:30 a.m., more than 200 vehicles had filled up at the pumps, paying a hefty $4.49 a gallon.

"It's not about the gas," said Jose Ramirez, 42, of Corona, who was making his fourth river run with his wife on a Harley-Davidson soft-tail motorcycle. "It's about resting and hanging out with the guys. The price won't matter to people. Once you get here, you're going to buy it anyway."

Okura, 56, who owns 35 Juan Pollo rotisserie chicken restaurants, bought the 500-acre town in 2005 for $700,000. That was more than $1.3 million below the asking price. He got the bargain after its previous owners put Amboy on the map by trying unsuccessfully to sell it on eBay.

The new owner has been restoring the town -- including the gas station, Roy's Cafe, a post office, a church building and a motel -- in hopes of capitalizing on Route 66 nostalgia.

Roy's was a popular pit stop on the Chicago-to-Santa Monica highway until the 1970s, when the opening of Interstate 40 turned the community into a ghost town.

It cost $75,000 and took more than twice as long as Okura expected to restore the gas station.

"This was real hard because I've never had a gas station," Okura said. "We had to meet all the environmental laws and the state laws and the federal laws. There were no permits on file for anything in town, so I had to start from scratch."

He got help last year when Route 66 motels made a list of 11 most endangered historic places in the country and the Route 66 Preservation Association vowed to help raise money for the restoration.

The toughest part comes next, when Okura plans to spend $700,000 to drill a water well and install a filtration system.

"The (San Bernardino County) health department doesn't want us to do anything further until we get potable water," Okura said.

Gas was enough for David Orneles, 60, of Rialto, who grew up in nearby Cadiz and worked at the motel cleaning rooms while he was attending Amboy School.

"In its heyday, Roy's was really busy," Orneles said. "Whether or not people wanted to, they had to come by here.

"By and large, people who came here were lost," he recalled. "The motel was always full."

Ron Jones, 59, drove 1,309 miles from his home in Bartlesville, Okla., to attend Thursday's opening.

A Route 66 fan, he showed off the 66 tattoos on his body, all but one depicting landmarks along the highway. His latest, on the lower right side of his back, is an image of Roy's Cafe.

"This one did hurt, big time," he said. "I think it was worth it."

Okura said he thought he might get a lot of business with the bikers passing through, but he said he won't make a lot of money selling gas. He pays $3.90 a gallon.

"I'm just happy to get open," he said. "It means we're finally getting the town restored the way it used to be."

He said station attendants have been "working the bugs out" but were able to get the gas flowing in time.

"The owner wants to bring back the feeling of the old gas station," said "Amboy" Jack Marcus, an attendant who washed the windows of every car and on many of the motorcycles that were filling up.

Loren Bayer, 64, of Apple Valley, was impressed.

"We always make a point to try to stop here," Bayer said. "It's so unique and nostalgic. It's nestled out here in the middle of nowhere."

He said he came Thursday to get out of the office, where he works as a cemetery-lot broker.

"It's alive here," he said, laughing. "Got to enjoy it. Any day could be your last."