Lompoc Seeks to Overcome Its Image Problem


Coasting on his third cup of morning coffee, Bill Cawley says he doesn’t get it: Why is this scenic Central California coastal farming town so obsessed with the late comedian W.C. Fields and his little joke on this place?

Instead of enjoying the quality of rural life, locals harp on the acerbic comic’s throwaway line in the 1940 movie “The Bank Dick,” in which Fields wickedly says “Lom-pock,” instead of the preferred “Lom-poke.”

Sixty years later, like the lingering effect of a childhood insult, the slight remains at the core of a local inferiority complex. Especially, Cawley laments, among people who call Lompoc home.


“The problem is people here have never been to Cleveland,” said the Ohio transplant. “They have never endured an East Coast winter. They live in paradise found, but all they talk about is an old joke. Talk about low self-esteem.”

More than a decade after NASA abandoned plans to launch shuttle missions from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base, many say Lompoc still reels from that economic and emotional blow as the town looks for new ways to define itself--other than as the butt of jokes. Folks here want to bolster Lompoc’s image and attract new business.

Naysayers call the place windy, cold, depressing, crime-ridden, too far off the beaten track. And nobody can even pronounce the town’s name.

“When the wind blows in Monterey it’s charming,” said Mayor Dick DeWees. “But when it blows in Lompoc, it’s a negative.”

The weather here, which is mild most of the year but can dip toward freezing in the winter, “weighs on you,” said former resident Jim Northrop. The happiest day of his life, he maintains, was when he moved inland to Sisquoc.

“It gives you a dark personality. And who wants that?”

Some say the local problems are far more serious, namely a plague of maladies ranging from hair loss to cancer, which they attribute to pesticide use on the area’s farms. Persistent complaints of health problems have fueled a decade-old dispute over the local environment.


Standing in a field outside town, resident George Rauh said pesticides dumped onto farm fields west of town blow into Lompoc. The 52-year-old unemployed schoolteacher, who said he got bronchitis after moving here, believes officials are in denial about the pesticides.

“Lompoc doesn’t have an image problem, it’s got a reality problem,” he said.

A study this year by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation failed to pinpoint the cause of local respiratory illnesses, concluding that pesticide concentrations found here were “well below the level of health concern.”

But a study released the previous year by the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment identified 69% more bronchitis cases, 58% more asthma cases and 37% more lung cancer cases than in neighboring cities and counties.

City officials say local farmers use no more pesticides than other agricultural communities. State environmental officials say more research is planned.

This month, in hopes of ending all the negative talk, officials began a Lompoc promotional campaign. For $31,000, they have hired a public relations agency to put a new spin on their town and hopefully attract new business dollars.

Councilwoman Janice Keller said that each day some 7,000 locals leave Lompoc for jobs in nearby Santa Maria and Santa Barbara. Reversing that trend is crucial, she said.


“We’re tired of being a bedroom community,” she said. “Our goal is to be a self-sustaining place.”

Lompoc officials recently met with 30 influential residents to consider ways to bring new money and positive PR to their town.

“We’ve all known for a long time that Lompoc suffers from an image problem,” DeWees told the group in a letter. “But it hurts me to think that a good portion of the bad-mouthing that goes on comes from our own citizens--people who live and work here.”

Officials are trying to persuade local merchants to be more flexible and stay open later to serve commuters who arrive back in town late in the day. She said officials are drafting a plan that will help them look to Los Angeles and other urban areas in hopes of luring businesses from dirty, gridlocked, crime-ridden cities to the relative calm of the Central Coast.

“We’re looking for companies that are having problems in big places like Los Angeles,” she said. “We want to go down there and drag them up here.”

Lompoc has lots of selling points, said DeWees, from the elegance of the surrounding flower fields to the 50 murals painted by local artists, including one celebrating that rascal Fields.


And the town’s location along Highway 1, far from the hurly-burly of U.S. 101, creates a peaceful, slow-paced atmosphere that’s an attraction for families tired of big-city life.

This isn’t the first time Lompoc has grappled with its image. In 1987, the town even sponsored a W.C. Fields film festival, but the event was never repeated.

Recently, a public relations firm released two Lompoc promotional posters. One shows several surfers and the words, “Our Style of Board Meetings.” The other shows two women in a sea of flowers. “We’re Outstanding in Our Field,” it reads.

Some locals say posters and happy talk aren’t enough. They poke fun at officials who stretch the town’s population to 42,000, a figure that includes the 6,000 inmates housed at local prisons.

“Those jailbirds don’t have a choice over living in Lompoc,” said one resident. “If they did, they wouldn’t be here, either.”

And, as in many small towns, young people complain there’s nothing to do in Lompoc. “My teenage son says he will seriously die of boredom here,” said Raven Stevens.


Officials counter that there are miles of beach, there are local theater productions, there are video arcades.

Onetime Lompoc mayor and former Police Chief J.D. Smith dismissed such complaints. “I’m retired and I didn’t have to stay in Lompoc; but I did,” he said. “I love this place. I love the people here. They’re down to earth, more so than you’ll find in any big city.”

And they keep searching for a new local attitude--one that has nothing to do with W.C. Fields.

As one resident put it: “W.C. Fields said mean things about everybody.”