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Imperial Valley offers housing alternative

Some people believe Imperial Valley could be the next bedroom community for San Diego. The per capita income is low in the county seat of El Centro -- on average, people only make about 15-thousand dollars a year. Yet more than half of all households own their own home. Affordable prices are sending some San Diegans over the county line. Here's Rebecca Tolin's report from early 2005.

Archibald counts cars.

Mike Archibald: "Counting everything that goes through this intersection, all the cars and all the people."

His company monitors traffic flows. After a day observing other people's commutes, he begins his own.

Archibald: "I am on my way."

But it's not your ordinary commute.

Archibald: "Tonight it will take me approximately a half hour, 45 minutes to get back to Lakeside, and then an hour and a half to get back to my house in Brawley."

Brawley, in Imperial County. Each night, Archibald makes the 120-mile drive from San Diego to El Centro, and then an extra 15 miles to Brawley. He leaves and arrives home in the dark.

Archibald: "Then at night, I'm going home. I get to go to my family. And when I pull around the corner and head up to my house, I'm there."

On this night, it's 8 o'clock when Archibald greets his family.

Kandi Dell: "Hello!"

Archibald: "Hi babe. How's Jess?"

It's a long day and a short night a trade-off Archibald says is well worth it. He and fianc e Kandi Dell bought a new 4-bedroom house in a quiet Brawley subdivision last October. The price tag -- $194,000.

Archibald: "It's a dream come true. It's a blessing from God."

Dell: "We're paying less in mortgage and owning our own house than we could rent a house in San Diego."

Archibald and Dell were renting a two-bedroom apartment in San Diego. Home- ownership seemed out of reach, until they cast their gaze east -- far east.

Ed Snively: "We're actually having folks come from San Diego to live down here and commute back and forth to work. I think that's the signal that we're joining together even closer with the folks in San Diego and we're able to provide them with affordable housing and I think this trend will continue."

Ed Snively sees San Diegans heading inland to the affordable calm of Imperial Valley. The farmer-turned-realtor has lived here his whole life.

Snively: "Camacho's. It is an Imperial Valley high point and a must stop for good food!"

Snively remembers meals at the local landmark as a young boy. The 50-year-old family run restaurant sits alongside fields of vegetables and livestock. But even in this farm community, Snively says times are changing.

Snively: "I think it's where the future is. I think the last hundred years belonged to the coastal areas of California. I think the next 100 years belong to the inland valleys."

The sound of bulldozers is as common as tractors these days. There are some 14 subdivisions under construction in the county. And another 24,000 units are in the planning process. Snively says what was once a dusty cow town has caught the eye of national developers, and eager home-buyers.

Tolin: "What does a home like this sell for?"

Snively: "Generally what we're seeing is somewhere around $350,000 for a home price which again is below the average price in San Diego."

Homes in the upscale "Farmers Estates" are pricey for Imperial County. The average new detached home is about $256,000. Compare that to a whopping $782,000 price tag for the average new house in San Diego County. Another tell-tale sign of growth in the Imperial Valley -- the area's first large-scale shopping mall is set to open this spring. Four department stores and 80 specialty shops might not seem like a big deal to San Diegans. But it is for residents in Imperial Valley who currently have had to drive more than an hour to the shopping mall."

Cathy Kennerson: "There's a lot of excitement in Imperial Valley up in the Calpatria, Brawley area to Calexico about the mall because right now folks have to travel to either Yuma or San Diego or Palm Springs to shop at stores like Robinson's-May and Dillard's."

El centro chamber of commerce C-E-O Cathy Kennerson says the mall will bring a better quality of life, and $1.5 million a year in sales tax. Built over alfalfa fields, the retail center signals the beginning of a new era. Kennerson says it was the catalyst for the flurry of residential construction.

Kennerson: "Imperial County has typically been a rural agricultural area and they haven't seen a lot of booms in development in any course of their last 100 years. And so within the last 18 months, they've probably seen more development than they have in the last 60 years here in the Imperial Valley."

Farming is still the number one industry here, but retail and government positions are bringing a more diverse job base. Two state prisons and the U.S. the border patrol do business here. Still, the unemployment rate, 23 percent, is the highest in the state. Larry Bratton knows the Imperial Valley mall will bring new jobs, about 1200. But the small business owner worries large chains will take a bite out of mom and pop shops and ultimately create dead-end jobs.

Larry Bratton: "We do have a very high unemployment rate and a very low per capita income. So I hope we can support all this retail. The thing that we're lacking, there has not been a big growth in industry or any type of jobs that will create higher pay."

As a member of the planning commission and a lifetime resident, Bratton worries about unchecked development. The mall and new homes are popping up on the outskirts of town. Bratton welcomes the influx of newcomers and new money but wants to see smart growth.

Bratton: "There's more growth than I've ever seen in all the years I've lived here, which is my entire life. I hope the growth, we can get some control on it, have some smart growth so that maybe in 20 years we won't be looking at issues we've looked at in the past where we didn't do things the right way."

Kandi: "Every morning."

Mike Archibald's percolator will signal the start of a new day, at 2:45 am. Even with the long hours, he is thankful for small town living and long-awaited home ownership.

Archibald: "Dear Lord. Thank you for this blessing, for this food, for this day. Thank you heavenly father for all that we have. Amen."

Archibald hopes to transfer to Imperial Valley one day, but job prospects are slim. Kandi Dell is looking for work at the new mall.

Dell: "I had to quit my job in San Diego and haven't found one out here yet, but on the other hand, I get to be a stay at home mom for a little bit so I'm very grateful for that."

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