I'm sure many people would argue that Needles is not a ghost town, but in my opinion, if it isn't already, it's on it's way. This was once a thriving place on the California/Arizona border. It was the first (disappointing sight) for most of the folks moving west during the "dust bowl" period. People were expecting to see orange groves and green paradise when they hit California. What they saw was desert. A huge desert. This exact moment was depicted in John Steinbeck's epic novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
Several things led to the demise of Needles. The main highway (the famous route 66) ran right through town. When a new highway (route 40) bypassed the main part of town many years ago, things started to go downhill and continued until today. Because Arizona taxes gas at a lower level than California and the owners of the Needles stations are price gougers of the first order, Gas is at least a dollar cheaper a gallon there. Yesterday, we filled up our jeep with gas. In Needles, gas was $4.92 a gallon. A mile away in Mojave City, Arizona, gas was $3.70! I guess that partially explains the 12 closed and/or former gas stations on the main drag in Needles. I should also tell you that Needles is regularly the hottest place in the United States and sometimes the hottest place on Earth.
There are some RV campgrounds and a golf course community on the outskirts of Needles, but the main part of town is sad. During the winter months "snowbirds" add greatly to the population in this area. Canadian and northern US license plates are more often seen than local ones.
This spot is about 20 yards away from where we are parked for two weeks. Hard to believe it's in the middle of one of the world's largest deserts. It's the Colorado River. I took the photo from the California side. Arizona is across the river and Nevada is where those mountains are in the left distance. BIG sky country...
About 100 years ago, this used to be the El Garces Hotel. The plan is to refurbish it and open it again. The project has been going on for many years and not much is happening. They want it to be a four star hotel and resort. I don't see many people going there, no matter how many stars it has. It's in the middle of the area I'm calling a ghost town.
This group of photos are six of the 12 closed up gas stations I counted on the main drag of Needles. We might do some more exploring to find out just how many there are.
This group of photos is only six of the many closed up motels along the main drag (old Route 66). This place was really hopping at one point in time. Sadly, that point in time is long gone.
The only school we saw in the old part of town was this one and it's shut down and boarded up.
Needles even had it's own city airport! All that remains is this building.
At one time Needles was the largest town in the area. Now it is the smallest. Pretty sad, if you think about the rich history of the area. We'll be going back to Needles after the summer is over. It's now over 100 degrees everyday. It was very interesting and surprising to not see any graffiti anywhere.
August 4, 2013
I've just received several new comments and email from people who are from Needles, or live in Needles. I was pretty sure I'd get a few comments from locals about what was said here, but I didn't think it would take this long. I'm going to copy one of the emails into a comment, but my response will have to be in the body of the post because it greatly surpasses bloggers number of characters limitations.
Anonymous (7/31/13 comment) - Much of what I wrote below relates to your comment
Anonymous (8/1/13 comment) – I think some of those things you told me to do are illegal in this state! I hope you didn't really think I was going to do anything but delete your comment.
Anonymous (8/2/13 comment) – Based on that comment I was just referring to, you might have been confronted. Thanks for speaking up! I certainly do agree with you about the “wrong crowd.” That is what happens when vacant buildings and houses are left sitting around to rot.
Suzanne and Anonymous - Thanks for taking the time to send your lengthy comment and email to me. Suzanne, I’ve seen your name in a few of the City Council and Hospital Trustee meetings minutes. It seemed like you were concerned about how much running the local hospital was costing the city and felt that the residents should know about it. I commend you for that! I can’t say I agree with much more though.
You said that the boarded up school and most of the closed up gas stations I pictured in this blog post are on the Needles Highway and not the “main drag through town.” Not the main drag you say? That was part of the old Route 66 Suzanne! It most certainly is the historic “main drag!” There is very little traffic on it now when compared to a couple of the newer streets (no streets in Needles have much traffic anyway).
I said I wondered about the lack of graffiti, so I asked a few people about it. I was told that the graffiti does exist and shows up all the time. However, iff it is reported to the public works department, it is cleaned up right away. Kudos on that, but don’t pretend it doesn't exist.
Kids Having Fun
You make it sound like kids are everywhere having fun. I’m sure that some kids are doing those things, but exactly ZERO of them are playing in the park in front of the El Garces Hotel, or riding their skateboards and bikes on the empty sidewalks of the “historic” district. You don’t even live around there anyway! You are nice and cozy living by the river, with the golf course, the BNSF railroad yard and about a dozen railroad tracks between you and “the historic” area. I guess you could say that the area we are talking about is on “the other side of the tracks.”
Sex Offenders in Needles
Anonymous, you said you went back to Needles to start your family there. You might want to rethink that decision. I’m sure that you've never heard of the Resident to Sex Offender Ratio. It indicates how many sex offenders an area has per capita. The ratio for Needles is 231. That is one sex offender for every 231 residents. Following are the ratios for towns in your area (All statistics are gleaned from the FBI National Crime Database).
Sex Offender Ratio (HIGHER is better)
Golden Valley is 183
NEEDLES is 231 (thank goodness for Golden Valley!)
Barstow is 285
Las Vegas is 341
Ca/Nv/Az combined are 366
San Bernardino County is 561
Laughlin is 667
State of California is 880
Kingman is 1,147
Bullhead City is 1,358
Lake Havasu City is 1,855
Mohave Valley is 2,453
The best town in that part of the country is your closest neighbor, Mohave Valley. The avg. ratio for the 10 worst states is 338. Now let’s talk about crime in general.
Very few of citizens and none of the visitors are walking the streets of Needles at night. this is especially so in the "historic" district. I know this because I’m there a lot and most of the people I talk to tell me so. The FBI Crime index indicates that Needles has the highest crime rate of any town in the area. There are two types of crime in the index, violent crime and property crime. Violent crime includes such things as robbery, rape, murder and assault. Property crime includes such things as theft, burglary, vandalism and auto theft. While violent crime is fairly high in Needles, crimes against property are EXTREMELY high. This is usually due to a high level of vacant and abandoned buildings and vehicles. Following are comparisons with other towns in the area.
Crime Index (LOWER is better)
Lake Havasu City 186
Bullhead City 167
Boulder City 78
You disagreed with my comments about a downturn in your local economy. Although the downturn I was speaking of commenced with the opening of Interstate 40. I’m also not as optimistic as you and some others relating to the future of the local economy. The following explains why I feel that way.
Last time I was there I didn't notice any construction going on, but I’ll take your word for it. Did anybody question how those renovations are really going to being paid for? I’ll bet you that very few Needles residents have any idea. If the majority of the tax payers in Needles knew and understood, the renovations wouldn't be happening, because they wouldn't have voted for them (only 59% did). I’m having a hard time digging up the total bond obligation taken on by the school district for construction and other things, but I’m still digging. However, I am sure of the following.
It appears that 10.9 million dollars was approved earlier and in September of 2008 a total of $6,775,424.10 in bonds were issued. The maturity date is 2031-2034. At that time a balloon payment of $13,188,012.00 will be due.
In July of 2011 the district issued general obligation bonds with an aggregate principal amount of $3,049,027.00. Payment is due in 2045! I believe there is still more bond debt on the horizon that I don't know about, but I'm sure I just haven’t found it yet. How and who is going to pay for these bonds? There are some investments that will partially do that, but I’m putting my money on property tax payers via special assessments. Some of the bonds are Capital Appreciation Bonds! Ever hear of Zero Coupon Bonds? Same thing! Great to buy, but STUPID to issue! One of them involved $635,424.00 that isn't due until the year 2032. The balloon payment will be a lump sum of $3,820,000.00. The other one was for $561,278 and was taken out in 2011. This one is due in 2036 and the payment will be $1,832,299.00. These instruments are nothing more than land mines set to go off on a particular date, many years in the future. Of course, the people who were involved in making these decisions will probably be long gone from the school district and maybe life by then. This terrible debt will be left for their children to pay.
These obligations may also inhibit the district’s ability to procure further financing in the interim. What if the city of Needles goes bankrupt like the county seat did? Are there enough people paying property taxes in Needles to pay off this kind of debt? My granny always told us that “if something sounds too good to be true, it isn't!” Seriously, they can “borrow” millions of dollars without paying a penny up front and don’t have to pay it back for 20-40 years! Who cares if the pay back amount is two, three, or even four times as much and it’s all due in one payment! THEY WON’T BE AROUND TO PAY IT!
Local Economy and City Financial Health
First off, the city’s financial documents contain data and narrative indicating a current decline in the city’s financial position. The City’s net assets, exclusive of the Hospital fund, decreased primarily because of declining revenues and increasing costs. Fiscal year 2012 activities resulted in a decrease in net assets of $356,000.00. Throw in the hospital finances and it would look much worse. The only reason the city has any chance of staying afloat is the income generated by public utilities. I just finished talking about school district long term debt in the vicinity of $15,000,000.00. Now I have to tell you that the city also has long term debt on the books to the tune of about $43,000,000.00.
Needles Public Utility Authority
The Needles Public Utility Authority has some long term debt also. Almost $74,000,000.00 worth of debt! I believe that much of that debt was accrued when the city issued bonds to finance buying back the utilities that they sold off some years ago.
Improvements Around Town
As to the small group of people who are “fixing up and restoring” older buildings around town. What have they restored? I call B.S.! Seriously, some cute Route 66 logos painted on abandoned gas stations and other buildings isn't even close to fixing up or refurbishing them. In my humble opinion, it makes the town look even more pathetic. The painting isn't being done by a small group of people or volunteers either; it’s being done by a guy who came into town looking for work. Yes, he’s talented and his painting is great, but he is not fixing anything up. Besides, a couple of abandoned gas stations with a little fresh paint on them is one thing, but a dozen or more? Save a couple and get rid of the rest.
You said people take pride in their in their homes and local enterprises. First off, you (Suzanne) don’t live in the impoverished part of town. Almost 40% of the homes in Needles are vacant and/or abandoned. Broken windows, boarded up windows and doors, and sagging roofs. The houses that do have people in them are many times surrounded by junk and broken down cars. Of course the yards aren't full of overgrown grass, because it’s the desert! Yep, that is some real pride of ownership! Get off the main street and walk through the residential areas in the “historic” area (or most other areas for that matter). It is most definitely a ghost town there. Please though, don’t walk around there after dark…
El Garces Hotel Project
You both stated that the El Garces project has continued and is going stronger than ever. I been there recently and It has hardly changed at all in the past several years, any progress being made is not “noticeable.” Didn't the state nix the city’s plan to use state transportation funds for anything other than widening the roads to the El Garces? The city’s plan was to use part of the money for work on the actual building. On a side note, due to the wonders of modern accounting practices, money spent on the “project” is listed as an asset, rather than an expense on the city’s financial balance sheet.
What about the huge rusted tank containing thousands of gallons of kerosene was recently discovered buried in front of the building? I know they were going to get somebody out there to do soil and site testing, but I can’t find anything on the internet about any results. A call to city hall was also non-productive. A toxic cleanup could end up costing as much as a good chunk of the total refurbishment budget.
Like I said before, if this project was worth doing, someone would have come forward and bankrolled it by now. They won’t though, because it is in a terrible location. Not only is it in Needles in the first place, it’s in a bad spot IN Needles. Between the El Garces and the river there are 15-20 railroad tracks and sidings, the BNSF rail road yard, the municipal golf course and a trailer park (or prefab homes). On the other side is the downtrodden and only partially occupied, “historic district” of town. Are people going to come to Needles just for the hotel? Some Route 66 and rail road enthusiasts will stop by and take a look as they pass through town, but who else would? And why would they stay there?
River’s Edge Golf Course (municipal)
One of you said, “Our returning winter visitors like golfing at our 18-hole course, and our summer visitors stop here for the many accommodations they find for their boating and swimming enjoyment. “
Please! That golf course (that very few returning winter visitors use) is nothing but a financial albatross around the city’s neck. Again, is this something a town this size should even be involved with? Especially not when it’s a money loser? Do either of you remember, or know that about 20 years ago, the city contracted with a golf course management company to run the course and restaurant? It didn't go well and the city lost a lawsuit relating to their termination of the contract.
They need to sell it if they can. I remember that the Fort Mojave tribe gave it a couple of thoughts, but never came close to making an offer. We all know that there aren't very many summer visitors in Needles. Down at Pirate Cove it gets crazy, but most of the people there don’t come into town. People do go to Needles to explore the desert and I’m one of them. Don’t you think that people from any of these groups would rather have some places to shop?
Now pay attention to this part, okay? My family and I LOVE the desert and spend a great deal of time there. We are also Route 66 and train enthusiasts. However, we don’t go into Needles for those two things. NOTHING having anything to do with ROUTE 66 has been restored. It has all just been sitting there for years in a state of slow decay. If, and that is a big if, the El Garces ever gets completed, I’ll go there and check it out, but probably only one time.
Speaking of new businesses! In 2008 the citizens of Needles voted to approve the placement of a casino on Fort Mojave Indian tribal land just outside of town. What happened to that? The citizens voted that they were fine with it and not a single word has been said about since. Amazing...
One of you stated that a handful of businesses have recently opened up in Needles. You specifically cited “2 medical dispensaries and a smoke shop.” You do know that by medical, they mean Marijuana, right? You also know that a smoke shop (wink wink) primarily sells drug paraphernalia, right? Can you buy groceries, clothing, pet food, prescription drugs, hardware, or any other retail items at the new businesses you mentioned? Of course the answer is no. One of you suggested the Discover Needles FB page. I signed up there quite a while ago.
You said if I ever come back to Needles I should do certain things…
I've been going to Needles for more than 50 years and I've done all those things. I've also watched a nice town go to hell, while nobody lifted a finger to stop it. When they did finally lift a finger (which was only recently) they did nothing but make terrible decisions.
You said I should take a look around town and see how people interact with each other. There aren't any people walking around on the streets of Needles to interact with! That is especially so in the “historic” area. Most of the buildings and houses there are empty!
You say Needles is the type of town where the "tribe" raises the children. Based on the EXTREMELY high number of convicted sex offenders that live there, you better give that another thought.
I agree that there a lot of great and successful people who came from Needles. Why do they all come from Needles, but none of them STAY in Needles? Why do most kids get out of town as soon as they can?
To both of you, If not for the railroad, Needles would be a full blown ghost town. I take that back, it would much more resemble the blighted neighborhoods in some of our major urban areas. It’s only claim to fame is Route 66, but NOBODY has ever tried to take advantage of that until now. Most of the Needles residents that I've spoken to don’t feel the way you do. The few who do say they like it, don’t even live in the main part of town. They live by the river and rarely go into town. They do all their business across the river. They have to!
I’m sorry, but the actual town of Needles, is not now and has never really been a destination. It’s a place to jump off the interstate to get a bite to eat and get gouged for gasoline.
If people in Needles were truly interested in saving their city, they would start developing any Colorado River Frontage they still own. Or maybe start bulldozing some of the derelict neighborhoods and develop there as well. In my opinion, there needs to be a concentration on creating a vibrant town that has a “historic district,” not a town that is nothing but a historic district. All this is probably moot, because that boat has probably already sailed. All the neighboring towns and cities have been concentrating on building their economies by inviting progress, while yours sat idly by and avoided it.
Were you in Needles when the city council voted to secede from the state of California? They were mad because San Bernardino County wouldn't help bail the city out after they made the horrible decision to buy the local hospital (the one that they just resold BTW).
So just keep your heads in the sand and feel all warm and fuzzy about your little town, while it continues to self destruct. That doesn't make me happy at all. However, It does make me mad that the few working people and property owners that are still left in Needles are going to be held responsible for the horrendous decisions that have been made there over the last 20 years and continue to be made. Either way, I’ll still be spending time there. You check back here in a year or so and I’ll do an update.
In the meantime, you should all be embarrassed about the following facts:
- The voters allowed the NUSD to foolishly finance school refurbishments by issuing just under $11,000,000.00 worth of Capital Appreciation Bonds. Many years from now there will be balloon payments of more than $25,000,000.00 due and payable in full.
- The city is spending at least 12 million on the El Garces Hotel project that would have totally paid for the school refurbishments and avoided about $14,000,000.00 in long term debt (see previous bullet).
- The city paid Bashas' Grocery store 700K to stay in town. Because there isn’t enough business in town to support even a single grocery store.
- The voters allowed the Needles Public Utility Authority (NPUA) to take on over $70,000,000.00 worth of long term debt to buy back public utilities that the city previously owned and shortsightedly sold.
- The city foolishly bought the local hospital (to keep it from closing) and lost a great deal of money while operating it and later reselling it. The final amount of money this poor decision cost the city has never been made public. City hall told me that that information wasn’t available. Suzanne, I know you were one of the few people there who actively and loudly lobbied the city to make the info public, because residents had the right to know what it was costing them.
- The city is losing money every day operating a golf course that they have no sound business reason to own.
- The registered sex offender to residents ratio is extremely high (1 for every 231) and is the second highest in that part of the country.
- The crime rate in Needles is terrible and the highest in the area.
- Needles is safer than ONLY 16.6% of the rest of California!
- Needles is safer than only 24% of the cities in the United States!
- Your odds of being a victim of crime in Needles in 1 in 24.
- Many parts of the city are not safe to walk around in, especially at night (see crime rate).
- The unemployment rate is chronically high.
- Based on standardized testing results. Needles public schools have the lowest ratings in the area.
- Schools in all other towns in the area scored higher across the board.
- Over 36% (3 times the state avg.) of Needles residents are living under the poverty level.
- Over 42% of all children in Needles are living under the poverty level.
- The poverty level in Needles in 93% higher than the state average and 112% higher the national average.
- The income per capita in Needles is 33% lower than the rest of California and 21% lower than the national average.
- The median household income in Needles is 51% lower than the state average and 40% lower than the national average.
- The city regularly has the highest gasoline prices in the nation for no reason other than the greed of the owners.
- The city is regularly the hottest spot in the country (and sometimes the world).
- The city has virtually no place to shop for clothing and many other basic needs.
- There are hundreds of snow birds who winter in the area. They shop and buy gas for their cars and RV's across the river.
- The city has hundreds of vacant and abandoned buildings and dwellings.
- Despite the above fact, very few are for sale in the large downtown area.
- The city politicians and residents sat on their hands and fought development (and still are), while EVERY other town and city in the area was successfully developing and building like crazy.
- Needles has the most expensive gas in the nation on a regular basis.
- The average price for a gallon of regular there is $4.79. A gallon of premium is $4.99, Compare that to Mohave Valley (again, just across the river). A gallon of regular there is only $3.59. A gallon of premium there is only $3.79. (Prices as of 8/1/2013).
- Gas station owners in Needles are price gouging unsuspecting drivers on the I-40, who are trying to NOT run out of gas while crossing the desert. Don't believe me? Ask your mayor.
The biggest problem in Needles is "economic blight."
The obvious long term physical decline in many, if not most of the properties in Needles (especially the historic area) caused by a combination of economic decline, residents and homeowners moving away (and many times abandoning their properties) and businesses closing shop and/or leaving the area. When those factors are combined with the high costs involved in maintaining these properties, especially old buildings, it creates a snow ball that gets larger and larger as it feeds upon itself, until it can't be stopped. Add to these factors the fact that politicians and voting residents there have made terrible financial decisions and you have the all the factors needed for a "town killing" perfect storm.
The only reason that Needles has it's financial head above water at all, is the income generated by city owned public utilities. Or is it above water? I say it isn't and if you consider the incredible long term debt accrued by the city relating to buying back those public utilities; one can only come to the conclusion that the head is most certainly NOT "above water" and the city is actually drowning in long term debt that will eventually kill it.
The fact that the city doesn't have, or at least doesn't publish a combined budget, that includes the City of Needles, Needles Public Utility Authority, Municipal Hospital, and Needles Unified School District, is the opposite of financial transparency. I know the hospital will be gone from future balance sheets, but it most certainly cost the city a lot of money prior to that...........................................................
While all this is going on and the city is spending millions needlessly, the city residents and visitors STILL can't buy a pair of pants, a purse, or even a pair of shoes, anywhere in town.
The economy isn't killing Needles. Your local politicians and voters have done a fine job of doing that by themselves.