San Diego Business Journal

Wildflowers, grapefruit plant seeds for blooming Borrego

San Diego Business JournalApril 4, 1994   by Billie Sutherland

Spring has sprung and, in Borrego Springs, that means wildflowers and grapefruits.

Gilroy has garlic, Indio has dates, Calaveras County has jumping frogs. Borrego, an unincorporated desert hamlet 90 miles northeast of San Diego, is known for its grapefruit.

But tourism is its main industry.

The fifth annual Grapefruit Festival will be held next week in Borrego Springs.

It is one of several events that promotes tourism, the $5.1 million backbone of Borrego's economy, according to the 500-member Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce.

The Grapefruit Festival is sweetened by a variety of events to attract tourists: art exhibits, entertainment, a classic-car show, checkers and horseshoe tournaments, a book fair, picnic and children's games. Roadside grapefruit stands will be busy selling $2 bags of the locally grown, pink-fleshed fruit.

"The Grapefruit Festival was developed to extend the tourism season," said Dori Holladay, the town's honorary mayor.

"Our research showed that visitors stopped thinking 'Borrego' in March. As far as they were concerned, anything after March was too hot. So, we scheduled the festival after Easter, and it has introduced Borrego to a different market, one that's a little younger, and families."

The festival is one of several events held in Borrego to promote tourism.

The town has 3,000 year-round residents and at least another 5,000 people who live there during the tourist season from November through April.

Over the last 10 years, the town has grown 4.5 percent each year, according to Tele-Cable Service Corp., Borrego's cable TV company.

Borrego has a few golf courses, three banks, a dozen eateries, and just under 500 hotel rooms, including several resorts and condominium rentals.

The community's abundance of colorful wildflowers, which are in bloom through April, is one of its biggest draws. Although this season's wildflower display is demure compared to the past two years, more than 100,000 visitors are expected, according to officials of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Borrego is located in the midst of the park, the largest in the contiguous United States, covering 600,000 miles.

"The park is a jewel, there's a lot of stuff going on there," Holladay said of the educational tours, camps, Visitors Center, Junior Rangers for children, and other park activities.

"One of the challenges here is that the businesses in Borrego market the park since the California parks do not have a marketing budget."

The park gets about 1 million visitors a year, many of them stopping in Borrego for refreshments or souvenirs.

The "day-trippers" have a meal or two, fill up their gas tanks, maybe buy a T-shirt, and head home, chamber officials said.

Winter residents, families on vacation or business groups attending workshops at one of the local resorts, are the cornerstone of Borrego's tourism: The longer the stay, the more lucrative it is for businesses.

"Tourism is the lifeblood of this community, and it is the only significant employer in this valley," said Ray Innocenti, president of both the Chamber of Commerce and the Borrego Springs Bank.

"There's been a noticeable, steady growth in tourism over the last four years. The growth is driven by problems in the cities. People want a better environment and a better lifestyle, and we have that to offer.

"Borrego is an ideal getaway place for people who are fed up to their eyebrows with the stress of the cities. It's two hours away (from San Diego) and it's a completely different environment. It offers a little peace of mind, an opportunity to just sit back and look at the sky and not be blasted by ghetto boxes and honking horns."

To promote Borrego, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors gives the Chamber of Commerce a portion of the transient occupancy tax (TOT) collected in the community each year. Borrego's annual hotel occupancy rate is 65 percent, about the same as other hotels countywide.

The town gets 15 percent of the $309,000 in room taxes, or $45,600. The chamber spends $24,000 promoting tourism through ads, brochures and other materials that tout special events. The remainder of TOT funds goes to the Borrego Springs Community Association to maintain the town park, known as Christmas Circle, and to the local historical society and the Borrego Valley Airport.

The tourism season kicks off the first weekend in November with the Desert Festival, which had its 27th year in 1993.

Other promotions include the Circle of Art, with a jury that judges the works of artists from throughout California, and the Craft Fair, both held in March. Cinco de Mayo is the last big promotion before the mercury starts to climb in summer.

The summer temperature averages 105 degrees, but can get up to 120.

Braving The Heat

Innocenti, who has been a Borrego resident for 11 years, said summer visitors used to be almost non-existent, but that's slowly changing.

"We need a promotion like 'Cool things to do in Borrego Springs,' "said Jack Hull, the chamber's executive director. "We need to convince people that summer is not intolerable here."

That might be a hard sell for some folks. Part-time resident Robert Sharrock, a retired salesman, said summer in Borrego is just too hot to handle.

"There's not a person with a brain that would stay here in the summer," said Sharrock, who, along with his wife, summers in Estes Park, Colo.

But he said he likes the languid pace of Borrego and returns each fall.

"When I go to the post office to get the mail, that's the big social event of the day," Sharrock said. "You can't hardly beat that."

Many visiting seniors can find something a little more challenging to do: the Elder Hostel Program.

About 40 people from throughout the United States take part in Borrego's program. It costs $300 per person for each week-long session.

Participants stay in the desert and learn about geology, flowers, local history and star gazing through lectures and guided tours.

Business owners say they benefit from the program because the participants spend money in town during their stay.

Borrego's Elder Hostel Program is coordinated by the chamber's Elder Hostel Committee and staffed by park rangers and trained volunteers.

Participation has been excellent and Innocenti said six sessions will be offered this year, up from four held the last two years.

"It brings people here who are a perfect fit for the town," said Innocenti. "They are seniors, they are educated, they are in the upper-middle income bracket, and these are the kind of tourists the locals feel very comfortable with."

Volunteers are important to the Elder Hostel Program and just about everything else in Borrego.

About 300 to 400 people donate their time and energy, whether its providing rides or selling beer during Cinco de Mayo.

"We wouldn't exist without volunteers," Holladay said.

Borrego's people are great, leaders agree, but the town still has its concerns. Namely, transportation.

Transportation A Problem

Getting around town can be problematic, residents said. For example, Borrego has no shuttle, except when occasional arrangements are made with the county Rural Bus Service during festivals.

Borrego Valley Airport poses another kind of transportation problem, one that impacts the resorts' effort to lure business groups for retreats or workshops.

The airport used to accommodate a fairly steady stream of 12-seat turbo-prop planes and small jets, most of which were operated by the airline SunAir. The company was sold to Sky West, which ceased travel to Borrego Springs when its contractual obligation ended a few years ago.

The Borrego Valley Airport Committee was formed a year ago to lease the airport from the county, which owns it and maintains the runway. The lease is expected to be executed this month.

"We have an excellent airport here," Innocenti said. "The problem is we just don't have enough traffic to make it pencil out, but that's something we're working to change."

If they succeed, it could boost business-related booking at hotels, especially from East Coast travelers, Holladay said.

"As it stands, by the time we get them out here, they could have gone to China," she said.