Regretting its place in the sun

Times Staff Writer

Depending on their mood and whom you talk to, people in this parched railroad town clinging to the eastern edge of California call it the poor stepchild, the redheaded stepchild, the ugly stepchild of San Bernardino County.

They grouse about not getting their roads paved, about being 220 miles from the county seat, about being a dumping ground for parolees and sex offenders -- all the while gazing enviously across the Colorado River at boomtowns in Arizona and Nevada.

"The building codes are stricter here, the taxes are higher," said Patricia Scott, a nurse. "I cross into Arizona and it's growing by leaps and bounds. We are the only community in the tri-state area that hasn't grown, and it's probably because we are in California."

Kohl's, Target and Sam's Club stand like beacons on the not-so-distant shore. Gas is almost a dollar a gallon cheaper across the river. Casinos beckon. Cities mushroom. And Needles slowly fades away.

"Have you been downtown?" asked City Councilman Richard Pletcher. "It's like little Hiroshima. It's HiroNeedles."

Resentment has been mounting for years, but the county's decision to reduce the Colorado River Medical Center, the town's once proud hospital, to a small urgent-care facility has sparked open rebellion. Needles is now considering leaving California to join Nevada or Arizona or to create its own independent county.

"This is not a publicity stunt. We are serious about secession," said former Mayor and Councilman Roy Mills. "Look at Nevada, they are booming. Look at Arizona, they are booming. We want to level the playing field. I was initially skeptical about splitting off, but the more I learn about it, the more doable it seems."

In many ways, people here have already left; they just haven't moved. They often dine, shop and work across the river. Their schools' sports teams compete against teams in Nevada and Arizona, not California. And for fun they usually head to Las Vegas, Lake Havasu or Laughlin, not west to Barstow.

"I think leaving California may be our last chance," Pletcher said. "Are we supposed to just dwindle down to a puff of smoke?"

A city commission is investigating the options. Not that leaving would be easy. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress would have to approve.

"It will be tremendously challenging, but people don't feel their voices are being heard," said City Manager William Way. "At one time, Needles was the place to be. Now it's struggling to find itself, find its place in the sun, so to speak."

Founded in 1893 with the arrival of the railroad and named after the pointy mountains south of town, Needles calls itself "The Best Kept Secret on the Colorado River." But the sun-blasted city is struggling.

A handful of businesses dot old Route 66 as it meanders through the dusty downtown past decades-old burger joints, weathered Craftsman homes and the gritty railroad depot. Shade is scarce, and the temperature can hit 125 degrees.

Yet this tightly knit community rallies when threatened.

In 1965, it prevented the rerouting of I-40 through Searchlight, Nev., a move officials believed saved Needles from winding up a ghost town. And in the late 1990s, it helped fight off attempts to put a nuclear waste dump in Ward Valley, 22 miles to the west.

The 25-bed hospital is the latest battleground. It has treated patients for 56 years and remains one of the few services residents don't need to cross a bridge to use.

Needles took over the hospital itself. To cut costs, staffers are working without benefits or overtime. Yard sales are being held to raise money.

"The county of San Bernardino has never liked us. We have always been their ugly stepchild," said Pam Andrade, a respiratory therapist. "They led us to believe they would turn this place around. They are like a lying spouse in a relationship that keeps lying and lying, and eventually you can't believe anything they say."

Brad Mitzelfelt, a San Bernardino County supervisor who represents Needles, disputes that. The town is home to 11 county offices and benefits from numerous county services, including a library, an airport, a regional park and law enforcement, he said.

"Needles may be better served in another state, but that's because California has a disadvantageous business climate that hurts them when they try to compete against Nevada or Arizona," he said.

Tom Bright owned two NAPA Auto Parts stores -- one in Bullhead City, Ariz., one in Needles. He said he paid 10 times more in workers' compensation insurance in California than in Arizona. A gas can at his Needles shop cost $19.99. In Arizona, it was $5.99. He sold chemicals and paint in Arizona that he couldn't sell in California because of environmental regulations.

"The labor laws, the overtime laws, the environmental laws are all stricter in California," he said. "If you were to fly over Needles, then over Lake Havasu, Bullhead, Laughlin, you would see that Needles hasn't grown at all. I'd be happy if it left."

Bright already has. He recently moved to Arizona.

But quitting the state is an uphill battle for the city.

With the exception of West Virginia's leaving Virginia during the Civil War, American secession movements generally have failed.

Wendover, Utah, tried to join West Wendover, Nev., in 2002, a move derailed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

In the late 1980s, San Bernardino County voters rejected an attempt to create a county running from the Cajon Pass to Needles. And a group of Northern California and southern Oregon counties declared the independent state of Jefferson in 1941. The movement lives on today with its own flag, radio station and "interim capital" at Yreka.

"There is more and more talk about secession, not just here but all over the country," said Brian Peterson, a Jefferson spokesman. "The government is out of touch with our individual lives. I would tell Needles to stick with it, keep your head and have a goal in mind. Is secession what you really want, or do you want to feel empowered?"

That raises another question: If Needles were to secede, would anyone want it?

Councilman Mills thinks so.

"Nevada would get 15 miles of shoreline where they could put up a casino or other developments," he said. "This is not a lopsided situation."

Others aren't so sure.

"In terms of whether they are better off, they need to look at more than just the business climate and weigh the services they get now," said Virginia Valentine, manager and chief executive for Clark County, Nev., which would absorb Needles if it joined that state.

"It's true we have no state income taxes, but the idea that we have more money for services . . . well, I don't know if that's the case."

Mayor Jeff Williams thinks the whole thing is a bad idea.

"The county has bent over backward to help us," he said. "I think this is saber-rattling. But I want to look at it objectively. What will we lose? What will we gain? Is it even possible? I don't want to bash the county and then have this effort fail. Then we really will be the redheaded stepchild."

In town, talk of secession is often met with a raised eyebrow or wry grin. Yet it taps into a sense of alienation just under the surface.

"I think it's extremely ridiculous in this day and age that the county supervisors can't come out and see what we need," said Sandi DeLeon, part owner of the Country Garden Cottage shop downtown. "They think this is Egypt out here. They may get lost and wander around the desert for 40 years."

Leina Kaylor said loving Needles takes time.

"When you first drive through, it is hot and ugly -- and it isn't until you stop and meet the people that you realize what a nice place it is," she said.

Barely a mile from downtown, along the river, Needles feels very different. It's as much as 10 degrees cooler beside the broad ribbon of blue. The homes are well-tended, the views stunning. This is the "coastline" some believe is Needles' best selling point to a new state.

Jack Murray, 82, likes it too. He likes to sit in his front room and watch the ducks float by. He likes gazing at the desert. And he loves Needles -- Needles, Calif.

"It's so calming and peaceful here," said the retired locomotive engineer. "I think having a hospital is vital, but I don't think leaving California is a real good idea. I think it's utter nonsense in all reality. I'm happy right where I'm at."


Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World