Wildflowers, grapefruit plant seeds for blooming Borrego
Spring has sprung and, in Borrego Springs, that means wildflowers and
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
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,
"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
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
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
Borrego's people are great, leaders agree, but
the town still has its concerns. Namely,
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
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.