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Own your own California town: Campo in San Diego County is up for sale

The town of Campo is up for sale. The rural hamlet, an example of California’s Old West, is a more than an hour drive from downtown in far eastern San Diego County.

Campo isn’t a ghost town, but it is pretty close.

The rural hamlet, an example of California’s Old West, is a more than an hour’s drive from downtown San Diego, in far eastern San Diego County. The lion’s share of its buildings were built in the 1940s. And it hasn’t changed much since then.

Most of Campo has been owned since the early 2000s by a Las Vegas investor who made few improvements and — for better or worse — continued a legacy of keeping the area frozen in time.

As of last week, much of the town’s historic center is now up for sale. It provides a rare opportunity to own nearly an entire 16-acre village. The sale would include 28 residences, a mix of former Army barracks turned into apartments and single-family homes, as well as seven commercial properties.

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“This is a very unique opportunity for an investor to own the downtown portion of a small town,” said listing agent Conor Brennan. “It’s a very unique opportunity that doesn’t come around often.”

There is no advertised price for Campo. Brennan is waiting to see what type of offers come in. He said the owner, John Ray, is getting older and decided to sell off many of his properties.

Lucy Thomas, 86, organizes the baby section inside the Mountain Empire Homemakers Assn. Thrift store. A longtime resident of the Campo area, she was not aware the town is for sale.
Lucy Thomas, 86, organizes the baby section inside the Mountain Empire Homemakers Assn. Thrift store. A longtime resident of the Campo area, she was not aware the town is for sale.
(Alejandro Tamayo / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Roughly 100 people live in the downtown area included in the sale. Most residents work for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a major presence with Campo being about a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border, or the Juvenile Ranch Facility.

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Campo residents did not seem overly concerned this week about the majority of the town being up for sale, having seen the area change hands a few times.

Most of the town was put up for sale in 1994 with the price tag of $1.75 million, more than $3 million in today’s dollars. It is unclear from property records how much John Ray paid, but locals say it was less than the asking price.

Lucy Thomas, 86, of nearby Lake Morena has lived in the Campo area since 1940, when her father took a job with the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railway. She went to grade school and high school there, and raised children. On Monday, she was volunteering with other women at the town’s thrift shop run by the Mountain Empire Homemakers Assn. Thomas said she hopes whoever buys the property keeps the small-town feel of Campo and doesn’t increase traffic.

“It’s a place where children can ride their bikes after dark,” she said. “Everybody looks after each other.”

Development has still found its way to Campo in recent years. About 5,000 feet from the area for sale, KB Home constructed more than 200 single-family homes in the early 2000s that regularly sell for around $350,000. The project was approved in 1985 and has been consistently cheaper than other homes in the county.

Brennan said the land for sale in old Campo could be cleared to hold 110 single-family homes.

Campo’s claim to fame is that it was once home to the Buffalo Soldiers, the Army’s all-African American cavalry unit. The soldiers patrolled the area on horseback until 1944. During World War II, the base there, called Camp Lockett, was also used to house German and Italian prisoners of war.

A major reason Camp Lockett grew to 3,000 soldiers, and 5,000 horses, was a fear that the Japanese would use Mexico as a base to attack the United States.

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Before that time, it was an outpost for Texans making a new life for themselves after the Civil War. The town was even called “Little Texas” and was the site of an attempted bandit raid in 1875. It also has a colorful history as a railroad stop on the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railway. This history is celebrated at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo.

One of the most vibrant businesses in Campo is East County Lumber & Ranch Supply, which serves as a lumber yard, pet supply shop and even a place to get cowboy hats. Country music is piped over speakers in the old shop with creaky wooden floors as locals come and go, making it the unofficial town center of the unincorporated community.

The building that houses the lumber shop is included in the sale of properties. Bob Marks, who has co-owned the business with his wife, Deborah, for six years, says he hopes whoever buys the property will see the value in the shop. He said no one has talked to him about the sale yet.

Bob Marks, 62, is the co-owner of East County Lumber and Ranch Supply store on Forrest Gate Road in Campo. The store is on the land that is up for sale.
Bob Marks, 62, is the co-owner of East County Lumber and Ranch Supply store on Forrest Gate Road in Campo. The store is on the land that is up for sale.
(Alejandro Tamayo / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I’d like to keep it, basically, the same,” he said. “The store has the feel of an old-time hardware store.”

Marks said it would be strange if a new owner got rid of the shop because it has much of the supplies needed to rehab the town.

The sale also includes a Baptist church, a cabinet shop and a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, as well as a U.S. Post Office and land leased by the Border Patrol. Brennan, the listing agent, said investors may just be interested in buying and holding the land, or rehabilitating existing structures. One of the more exciting ideas he had, which seemed most favorable to residents, was a Hollywood studio buying the property.

Molnar writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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