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LOCAL

In a withered desert town, he envisions an otherworldly hotel

BAKER, Calif. — On the aging main drag here just off the route to Las Vegas, Luis Ramallo ticks off the worn buildings of Baker Boulevard by what they used to be.

There's the old IHOP and the Starbucks. The Chinese restaurant with broken windows and a weed-filled parking lot. In front of the closed Bun Boy, Baker's onetime biggest attraction — the World's Tallest Thermometer — has gone dark but still, in a way, tells the temperature of a town withering under the desert sun.

Yet on this recent weekday afternoon, a stream of drivers pull into the dusty parking lot of Ramallo's store, Alien Fresh Jerky. Inside the stucco box with a UFO out front and a bug-eyed extraterrestrial dangling his legs off the roof, customers peruse walls covered in dozens of flavors of dehydrated meats.

Ramallo, 56, believes his pluck has allowed him to thrive in a place where bigger businesses have failed.

"They don't take care of business," he boasts with a grin. "We take care of business."

The Argentina-born electrical engineer's next venture could test that claim: Ramallo is planning a multimillion-dollar, 31-room hotel in the shape of a flying saucer that has hovered in his mind for a decade.

He hopes the hotel will inject new vigor into a community of about 730 people that doesn't have a pharmacy or grocery store.

"Sometimes I can see a business where other people don't see it," Ramallo says. "I want to make improvements and put Baker on the map again, and we will." In business, he says, "you have to believe in your idea, and — 200% — I believe in my idea."

::

In the back of the store, Ramallo pulls out rumpled folders filled with newspaper clippings, sketches and a Popular Mechanics with a UFO on the cover. He finds the stack of renderings, the many iterations the UFO hotel has taken since he first hired an architect in 2009.

One version looked like an oddly shaped office building with windows. "You want me to put in windows?" he says he told the architect. "There's nothing to see in Baker!"

In another, the hotel was a khaki-colored oval. "This is a glass hamburger!" he sneers. "Maybe for some people that can be a UFO, but not for me."

Ramallo's son, Martin, 32, walks into the office.

"He believes in it before seeing it," says Martin, who, like two of his sisters, works for his father. "That's the difference between visionaries and spectators. That's him. He's the visionary."

Ramallo had a business doing electrical work in Las Vegas before he started selling jerky.

He started selling outside Area 51 in Lincoln County, Nev. As an immigrant, he would joke: "I was actually the alien in Area 51!"

Ramallo said he decided to leave the roadside stand. But, as a family, they voted to stay in the jerky business and find a permanent location. They also thought the alien theme was one worth hanging on to.

In 2001, he passed through Baker and spotted the six-acre parcel with a little building that would become the first home of Alien Fresh Jerky. The family lived in a small home on the property.

The growing business eventually moved to the larger store it now occupies. In 2004, Ramallo closed his electrical business to focus on jerky.

Jacob Overson, general manager for the Baker Community Services District, recalls many people thinking he was just another outsider whose business would sputter after a few months.

"No one really had much faith in him," Overson says, "but he proved us all wrong."

::

Ramallo has long imagined the graphite saucer of a spacecraft, lined with circuits and tubes filled with blue light, landing in a haze, a few aliens wandering off into the desert.

Struggling to convey his vision, he traveled in 2012 to a convention of theme-park designers. He met David Weiss, a freelance creative director who has designed props and theme park attractions. Weiss eventually nailed it.

Ramallo hopes to begin construction over the summer. The project — which could cost close to $25 million, funded by Ramallo and a small group of investors — cleared its first hurdle in January when San Bernardino County officials approved the land-use plans.

A UFO hotel wouldn't have much competition.

Two motels have closed. Another, next door to Alien Fresh Jerky, has vacancies but isn't exactly a five-star stay. A for-sale sign hangs out front.

But some have hope Ramallo's project wouldn't meet a similar fate.

Nono Khasa, who manages gas stations and fast-food restaurants in Baker, says the town is a stopping point for families, film crews and other motorists traversing I-15 or exploring the Mojave Desert.

"They are always looking for a place to stay," she says. "If there's a decent hotel in town, I think it will work well."

Overson says if the hotel were successful, it would bring jobs and perhaps a renewed optimism.

But he acknowledges Ramallo's risk in investing so much in a place that others have fled.

"It's either going to make or break him," Overson said. "It's a hell of a gamble, but all of his friends say he likes taking those gambles."

::

Ramallo drives past the modest home where he lived with his family when they started and pulls up to a wrought-iron gate, a golden "R" affixed to it.

With "Rancho Ramallo" emblazoned on an outer wall, Ramallo's new home has a manicured garden and a portico stretching over the driveway. At two stories, he brags it's the tallest building in Baker.

"This is my house," he says, brimming with pride. "In Baker."

There's an eight-car garage, a swimming pool, a lawn as green as a golf course and a barbecue pit big enough to roast entire goats for his birthday, just like in Argentina.

He calls Baker "my place," and has already told his family: When he dies, he wants his ashes spread here.

"This city," he says, "has given us a future."

He gives little thought to the possibility of his long-dreamed-of hotel becoming yet another shuttered business on Baker Boulevard.

"If it fails, it fails," Ramallo says. "What are you going to do? I'm not going to kill myself."

He's built all this from the ground up once. If he has to, he figures, he can do it again.

rick.rojas@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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