The headline in the Antelope Valley Press was not the sort one usually sees in a sagebrush desert town of 14,000: Defense budget request has billions for AV projects
But at this little oasis of Joshua trees, aircraft hangars, model homes and fast food shops at the edge of the Mojave, such news is taken in stride. In an age of air power and nuclear war, Palmdale has found a lucrative niche, and the Reagan administration seems to be about ready to carve the town's place in history deeper.
Since the Air Force bought the local airfield in 1950, Antelope Valley Press managing editor Vern Lawson explained, Palmdale has sucked in a succession of companies drawn to the work of producing experimental aircraft in the almost always cloudless upper desert skies, with few people around to bother them. Lockheed, Hughes, Northrop, Rockwell all turned up, providing some jobs along with the local alfalfa and poultry industry, but that, the people of Palmdale now realize, was only the beginning.
Last fall, the Reagan administration announced it was reviving the B1 bomber, and my neighbor the television repairman in Pasadena--40 miles over the mountains from here--had a big grin on his face. Like many other small Los Angeles investors, he had bought some Palmdale land, and now he sees it sure to pay off.
The proposed B1 bomber appropriation is $4.7 billion for one fiscal year. Earthmovers are already scraping off the weeds and surface soil where an $83 million assembly plant will go up, not far from the huge Lockheed hangar at the Air Force's old plant No. 42. The B1 plant construction will create 800 jobs. The plant itself will create 4,300 permanent jobs, plus untold hundreds of opportunities for subcontracting firms and land-developers. They are coming by in great numbers to see Doug Dixon, president of the Antelope Valley Board of Trade and manager of Palmdale's Bank of America branch.
The space shuttle landings at nearby Edwards Air Force Base have drawn thousands of tourists and focused world attention on the 90,000 people of the surrounding Antelope Valley. New houses are going up. The Antelope Valley Press is expanding to four issues a week for its 36,000 circulation. The new military budget even appears to have some new work for Lockheed, to ease the pain of the shutdown of its assembly line here for the L1011 commercial jumbo jet.
Palmdale doesn't have a property tax, the sun shines 350 days a year, and gentle greens of the Antelope Valley Country Club draw a substantial membership from the far reaches of Los Angeles, an hour's drive away.
If the state and federal governments finally clear the plans for the long-expected major international airport here, a facility that the Board of Trade says could create as many as 30,000 additional jobs, "you'll have to fight the speculators off with a stick whenever you go to the supermarket," said Dixon, 53, the banker who has become an expert in the development of such desert towns, having spent much of his career in them. Dixon still chuckles at the reaction of Los Angeles business leaders recently bused into the valley for a visit to see what good fortune and years of lobbying in Washington, D.C., can do
"They were amazed that we had all these things over here," he said. "They just assumed because we were over the hill we were a sleepy little desert community with gila monsters and lizards."
Dixon and other Palmdale leaders are doing their best to cover up the dusty storefronts and occasional abandoned gas stations that still make some of the heart of Palmdale look like any other sunstroked desert town. The new city hall has a fashionable brown adobe Spanish motif, as do Dixon's bank and some other remodeled buildings on Palmdale Boulevard.
Palmdale, said city administrator Patrick K. Rossall, has answered the challenge of a population explosion with "an aggressive program of low-interest mortgage financing to home builders." But the coming boom stirs passions sometimes hard to control.
Palmdale's former mayor, Lynda Cook, recently lost a bitter recall election (along with two other city council members) after her political enemies widely publicized their charge that her real estate firm's holdings created a conflict of interest with her position on the local redevelopment agency. She denied the charge, to no avail.
Antelope Valley folk generally vote Republican, wedded as they are to their right to own guns and the government's right to use their valley to build the national defense. Some worry that the coming hordes of new residents will change the style of life somewhat: the latest Board of Trade projection predicts a 300 percent increase in the population of Palmdale and a 100 percent growth in the valley's population by 1990.
Robert Knoblock, 43, vice president of the Nobby and Sons Inc. auto parts store on Palmdale Boulevard, said he and other longtime residents favor the valley "because there's still a little bit of the Wild West in all of us." The new people coming in will make it more crowded, he said, "but naturally we like having the money. We have to give and take on this."