Residents wonder whether the dozens of life-sized sculptures near Borrego Springs signify a return to prehistoric times.
  • Residents wonder whether the dozens of life-sized sculptures near Borrego Springs signify a return to prehistoric times.
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The little oasis of Borrego Springs now features more than 100 metal, life-sized sculptures of creatures who roamed there in prehistoric days — raptors, giant sloths, mammoths. They attract tourists. They also engender grim jokes among some locals: will the town revert to its prehistoric days?

Long term, there is a nagging problem: will there be enough water two generations from now? Short term, there is another problem: will there be enough patient capital for the town to develop? After enduring a run of asset flippers and big talkers through the years, Borrego finds itself once again needing facilities to attract tourists and amenities to bring in out-of-towners to purchase second and third homes.

“We have not given up on Borrego by any stretch,” says Linda Haddock, executive director of the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce, but she admits there are doubting Thomases wandering amid those prehistoric creatures.

The town needs the resuscitation of two major properties. The Borrego Ranch Resort & Spa (née Casa del Zorro), which had been losing bushels of money for years under the ownership of San Diego’s Copley family, closed down more than two years ago, throwing a number of people out of work. Investors led by Sherman Oaks–based GH Capital had bought it from Copley for $4.5 million and pumped $10 million into refurbishing it. But they gave up.

The adjoining Rams Hill housing development has depended on a championship golf course to attract buyers. But that course has closed and is going brown. Bonds that were refinanced in 2007 are in default. Water rights were sold to the Borrego Water District. Getting the golf course running would require solving the water and bond problems — costing at least $1 million. And when the course closed, few were playing; it could be a big money loser.

Last year, Borrego residents hoped that real estate entrepreneur Russell Geyser of Encinitas would breathe life into the town — selling lots for development, paying delinquent homeowner association fees and taxes, and getting the golf course up and running.

Alas, on September 22 of last year, David Schaack, president of the Rams Hill Community Association, and Blythe Cavanaugh, treasurer, sent a mourning missive to fellow residents. Geyser “is purely an asset buyer,” lamented the letter. “There is not, and never was, intent…to be a developer and grow the community.” The owner has “no interest in the golf course” and might let it go into foreclosure or back to the bondholders.

Worse, complained the letter, both GH Capital and Geyser “have continued to ignore their obligations to the community regarding the payment of their monthly dues assessments.” Together, they are $422,345 in arrears to the Rams Hill Community Association and $124,660 behind in payments to neighborhood sub-associations.

Schaack tells me that those arrearages are even higher now. Because of the lack of payments, Rams Hill residents “have to skinny things down” on services they would normally get from the association, he says. He fears some of the lots, as well as the golf course, could go into foreclosure. Geyser “isn’t making money now, although I have no idea what he paid” for the property, says Schaack.

Last year, Geyser gushed about his plans: he would slash prices on the lots, and the buyers would pay the back taxes and fees, although he would be effectively absorbing them through the discounts. He planned to pay off the bonds. However, “In this market people are not buying homes or parcels,” says Rick Vesci, who through his Rams Hill Realty is trying to sell Geyser-owned properties, as well as some still owned by GH.

Geyser is not so talkative this year. “We are working on a deal right now that cures everything, solves the bond problems, restarts the golf course, and begins to develop the lots. That is all I can say,” he maintains. He asserts that he has nothing to do with the golf course, now owned by a San Diego concern.

Unfortunately, such happy talk is what Borregans have been hearing since the early 1980s, when Di Giorgio Corporation first began to develop Rams Hill. The deal ran into trouble; several shaky buyers owned the property. It went through bankruptcy twice. GH changed the name to Montesoro, but recently, the name was changed back to Rams Hill. “The name Montesoro leaves a bad taste” with residents, says Schaack. However, he admits that the name Rams Hill is soiled among people in the financial community.

“I would be interested in buying [the resort] at the right price,” says Jack Giacomini, chairman of San Diego’s Hotel Managers Group, which operates 20 hotels and owns 4 of them. He notes that the landscape and buildings need work. “It is a great possibility for a mid-scale resort to appeal to San Diegans and other Californians.” Trouble is, GH’s price is too high for Giacomini. So the resort sits there.

One of Borrego’s disadvantages is that it is not accessible by freeway. Giacomini would turn that into an advantage. “It has a good future as a getaway destination resort, away from the hustle-bustle. It harkens back to the getaway locations of old California, although it has to overcome some challenges such as getting there.”

If the resort could be reopened “and there is a good operator, there could be an attractive package in that town,” says La Mesa resident Aaron Biggers, who once ran the Rams Hill property but left in 2003. But there is more bad tourism news: the golf course at Borrego Springs Resort & Spa, another popular tourist draw, will break precedent and close from July 1 to November 9.

Chamber’s Haddock says increased tourism, partly a result of the prehistoric animal sculptures, is lowering the unemployment rate. Also, a solar farm going up nearby will provide significant temporary employment.

Residential housing prices have plunged 50 percent from the peak, worse than San Diego’s 40 percent, says Vesci. Because of foreclosures and short sales, some people are getting incredible deals, he says, and Haddock agrees. In a recent distress sale, a home valued at $400,000 in the bubble years sold for $119,000. In a recent nondistress sale, a home once worth $525,000 went for $325,000. Some people can live without golf.

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Comments

GlennS1 May 31, 2012 @ 4:05 p.m.

We have owned a residence in Rams Hill since 1988. It was a retreat residence until last year when we made it our primary residence. Never was a golfer so don't miss that. However, I would re-invent desert golf so that it did not require so much grass and water (artificial turf, painted fairways, or something).

Borrego Springs has all the essentials, water, sewer, electricity, phone, cell phone, wireless internet, cable TV, cable internet. It is only 1.5 hours from San Diego via a lovely back country drive. And if you feel like it there are a few Indian Casinos on the path to break up the drive. Borrego Springs is also only 1.5 hours from Indio (a nice Costco) via uncrowded 2 lane and 4 lane divided highways. In just 40 minutes you can be in the cooler pine scented air of Julian. Since buying the Prius, the cost of gas for occasional trips is minimal.

The Borrego Springs resorts are pleasant and peaceful. Sure, it gets hot. Hot in Las Vegas, Phoenix, too. Lots of people live there. Eventually, when necessary, water will be piped in from the East.

Of course, jobs are not plentiful. Although the new solar power farm is providing some employment now. And don't forget the airport for private planes, operated by the County of San Diego.

Borrego Springs, like many places, has had its ups and downs. But through it all, as a part time mid-life retreat, or full time retirement haven away from the hustle and bustle of the city, it has a lot to offer.

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Don Bauder May 31, 2012 @ 9:30 p.m.

There is no question that Borrego Springs has a lot to offer. It's just that recent investments have flopped and major attractions are withering. Don't be so sure that water will be piped in from the east when necessary. Hopefully that will happen. But... Best, Don Bauder

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Visduh June 10, 2012 @ 9:32 p.m.

If GlennS1 is really happy in Borrego Springs, good for him. He's the sort of resident the place needs to survive. Trying to turn it into something like Palm Springs is not going to happen. Oh, there was the remote possibility that the Casa could have positioned itself as a true "quiet getaway" destination resort and have pulled them it, but it never seemed to have the marketing budget to make that happen. It would have required a celebrity to pull it off, and never had one who could have drawn the "beautiful people."

I still question the notion that the new owners pumped $10 million into "refurbishing" the Casa. It was in superb condition under Copley ownership, and had a world-class fitness center that was almost new, at the time of the sale. What the new owners did accomplish was to further alienate the place from the locals--for a time they could not dine in the overpriced dining room--and price themselves farther out of the market. The operation needed to reach out to San Diego County with some value-priced offers, and what we saw was the exact opposite. And so it went broke and closed. A sad episode for one of the county's finest resorts.

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Don Bauder June 11, 2012 @ 7 a.m.

Yes, Casa del Zorro, when it had that name, alienated the locals by excluding them from certain dining events. The price points were also set too high. These were unsound moves -- unfortunately, typical of GH ownership. Best, Don Bauder

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pjp Jan. 29, 2013 @ 10:58 p.m.

Mr. Bauder, I was wondering if you knew about the current developer's plan to "resurrect" Rams Hill and its golf course? Mr. Berkley recently made a presentation to the Rams Hill HOA in a bid to get the homeowners to - literally - buy into his plan.

It is yet another in a long line of grandiose schemes, which I believe has the potential to impact Rams Hill residents negatively in the long run.

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Twister June 7, 2013 @ 7:29 a.m.

Borrego--a snake is sheep's clothing. The persistent delusion that it can be made into a "green" fantasy is just that. What is missing from all this discussion are just plain facts. Give us a graph on the depths to water from the wells--the rates of drawdown over the years, and any signs of inflow to the water table when, if ever, has the water table done anything but drop? Then and only then, can the water issue be intelligently discussed.

If water is piped in from the east, that will only embrace the grander delusion that water is an "inexhaustible" or "sustainable" resource. Borrego "Springs" (where are the springs from which our fair Caesar doth drinks that He hath grown so great?) is most useful as a dramatic microcosm of the entire arid southwest's water problems--that Giant Sucking Sound turning all rivers into deserts, deserted by salmon, inhabited only by slime-dwelling organisms brought about by slimy promoters. A Grand Irony.

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