Gene Stevens winces at the mere suggestion that some people may think of Lompoc as just another prison town. The news from Lompoc's federal prison lately is almost all bad. Guards want the warden fired. Prisoners are fighting the guards. And the FBI is investigating it all.
But Stevens doesn't really pay attention. He says people in Lompoc don't think much about the prison, no matter what is going on there. Sure, it provides some local jobs, as does the sprawling Vandenberg Air Force Base adjoining the town. But that's about it.
When people think of Lompoc, Stevens says, he believes they think of flowers and the spectacular murals that have turned Lompoc's downtown into an outdoor art gallery.
Stevens, 74, loves this town, and it shows on the tour he's providing. He arrived in Lompoc in 1958, when the town had 6,000 people and not a single stoplight. He was mayor four times, editor of the Lompoc Record and a professor at Allan Hancock College.
But it's the Lompoc Mural Project, founded by Stevens and his wife, Judy, in 1988, that remains his passion.
"Nobody can even see the prison. It's hidden from view by a stand of oaks and eucalyptus trees," said Stevens, heading out of town toward the estuary of the Santa Ynez River where it meets the blustery waves and winds of Lompoc's Ocean Park.
The Mural Project started at a time when old downtowns were dying all over the country. Lompoc was no different.
"The mural program has been one of our greatest civic successes," Stevens said. "But that's because we pull together here so well. To me, this place is paradise."
Most recently, at a California Mural and Tourism Symposium, Lompoc was proclaimed the "most successful mural city" in California. The symposium took place in Lindsay, one of many California cities whose mural programs have been helped by Lompoc's example.
About 40 giant murals dominate downtown, all paid for by donations raised by the Lompoc Mural Society. Businesses also have commissioned their own works. There are maybe 100 murals now, large and small, splashed across everything from alleyways to government buildings.
"My wife and I got the idea in 1988 when we were visiting a little town called Chemainus in British Columbia," Stevens said. "It was a town of only 3,500, and it was dying because its major industry had shut down. The mural program there brought in a couple hundred thousand tourists and saved the town."
Times also were tough in Lompoc. As shopping centers were springing up on the outskirts of the city, Stevens called a town meeting, and residents approved the mural project as an approach to economic recovery.
"We've made a strong comeback here, but it could be a lot stronger," Stevens said. "There's plenty of space for more murals."
Not Seeking Change
Lompoc is a city of 43,000 people about 20 miles off U.S. Highway 101 in northwest Santa Barbara County.
This is a city without a Macy's or a Robinsons-May, without a Hilton or a Marriott. But Santa Maria isn't too far down the road, and you can always head there if you are looking for a slightly more upscale touch.
"We think the murals are a help in drawing people here," Mayor Dick DeWees said. "We already have a lot of people who are commuting to Santa Barbara. But we aren't a town that's looking for a big change. I would like to see some more mom-and-pop boutiques in the downtown area -- that sort of thing."
The murals contrast dramatically with the old downtown, following historic themes that collectively tell the city's story.
"Temperance," one of the larger artworks, portrays the founding of Lompoc in 1874 as a temperance colony. Sheepherders used to pass this way, Stevens says. And there was one house where they always gathered to drink. Lompoc's fierce foes of alcohol, led by a woman named Mrs. J.B. Pierce, strung a rope around the house, yanked it off its foundation and pulled it for a block.
"There was a hotel that served alcohol, too," Stevens added. "They dynamited the lobby."
"Diatomaceous Mining," a 20-by-40-foot mural adorning the Chamber of Commerce building, tells another story that goes back even further. Millions of years ago, the ocean covered places like the Lompoc Valley, and the siliceous bodies of diatoms, a microscopic algae, settled at the bottom. Eventually, their bodies were compacted into diatomite, a soft rock.
"We have mined diatoms here for 110 years," Stevens said. "They are used in over 1,000 products -- everything from nail polish to the filters they use in making Budweiser beer."
The presence of Vandenberg figures into many of Lompoc's murals. One honors the Titan missile program, now close to its official end. Another portrays an amazing project completed a few times by Lompoc Valley farmers during World War II and again after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Using red, white and blue flowers, Lompoc residents covered 6 1/2 acres of farmland with a giant American flag. The mural, titled "Great Floral Flag," pictures three servicemen saluting the flag, which was made from 600,000 larkspur and calendula flowers.
"It's things like this that make this town special," Stevens said.
He works closely these days with artist Vicki Andersen, chairwoman of the Lompoc Mural Society and past president of the Lompoc Valley Art Assn. Mayor DeWees and Chamber of Commerce President C. Dennis Anderson coordinate some fund-raising and community involvement.
Several murals were painted by inmates at Lompoc's low- and medium-security facilities. Stevens came up with the idea to enlist inmates while serving on a city committee that meets with prison officials.
"We have one of the murals up now called 'Sunset,' in Art Alley just across from our building," he said. "And there are four others up now. They have painted eight of these murals over the last 10 years.
"I just knew there was a lot of talent out there," he said. "We've had a few thank-you notes from guys who got out, saying it really helped get them through some hard times."
Ocean Avenue cuts through Lompoc's downtown, then hits the farmlands that separate the city from the ocean. This is some of the richest farmland in the country, and for years produced 70% of the flower seeds used in the United States.
"Today, it's everything from walnuts to row crops like artichokes and lettuce," Stevens said. "There is a growing winery industry too, and we still grow lots of flowers. There is a Lompoc Flower Festival every June. Because of the murals and the flowers, our city motto has become, 'City of Murals in the Valley of Flowers.' "
Before he ends his tour, Stevens makes a stop at La Purisma Mission, now a state park with a totally restored Spanish mission that draws an estimated 200,000 visitors a year.
Then it is off to an upscale housing area of Lompoc called Mesa Oaks. It's an area where houses routinely sell for more than $500,000 and can top the $2-million mark. Stevens lives here now, his home having doubled in value in the last two years. Like the prison, this neighborhood also is virtually invisible from the road.
"This isn't a prison town," Stevens repeated. "It's the most wonderful place on the Earth for me."