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Seeking Exclusivity Without the Extras? Think About Lajitas

Millionaire Mischer Places Remote Resort on the Block, But Residents Are Worried

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From The Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2000

LAJITAS -- For sale: Old West town, complete with a full-service resort hotel, a golf course and 21,000 surrounding acres. The town, near Big Bend National Park, is situated in what may be the most remote corner of the continental U.S., so there's plenty of room for expansion.

No, this isn't another state privatization scheme. Houston millionaire Walter Mischer is selling his pet project, Lajitas Resort, which encompasses the border town of Lajitas.

National Auction Group Inc., which is handling the sale, reports there have been 50 inquiries about the property so far. "It's mostly people who think it would be fun to own their own city," says William Bone, president of the auction company.

Mr. Mischer, 77 years old, says the sale is part of his continuing effort to divest himself of some of his vast holdings. In the past five years, he has sold his property-management company in Houston and a 51,000-acre ranch near Alpine. "It is just the time to sell some stuff," he says.

But the sale of Lajitas, to be conducted at a Feb. 24 auction in the town's saloon, has tapped into a fear of development in what is perhaps the least-developed part of the state. Already, nearby Terlingua is developing a reliable source of water in an effort to attract more tourism and full-time residents -- a move longtime area residents aren't happy about.

People "are real suspicious of change down here," says Judy Caskey, who manages the RV park at Lajitas.

Brewster County is the largest county in Texas. Yet it's one of the least populated, with fewer than 10,000 residents. Lajitas and Terlingua lie at the southern edge of the county, between the Davis and Chisos mountains. The nearest grocery store and hospital are 90 miles away in Alpine.

And there are few amenities. Many residents of Terlingua live without running water or electricity. Lajitas provides treated water out of the Rio Grande River, although hotel manager Will Murley admits the water can have "a laxative effect" on newcomers.

But these harsh conditions are considered assets. The isolation attracts an iconoclastic breed of residents who cherish their independence and toughness. "If you live out here," says Terlingua resident Leslie Prickett, "it's because you know the way of life and you can survive it."

Adds Terlingua resident Mindy Hamlett: "Most people down here don't want to live around a bunch of people. If we wanted that, we would have moved to Las Vegas."

Despite these isolationist views, the late 1990s has brought a relatively large influx of newcomers to the area, including vacationers, weekend-home owners and some permanent residents.

Mr. Mischer first bought land in Brewster County in 1952 when he picked up 25,000 acres auctioned off by the Internal Revenue Service "because it was cheap," he says. He steadily added more until, at one point, he owned more than 240,000 acres in the region. A large chunk of that was sold back to the state in 1988 and became Big Bend State Park.

The town of Lajitas was founded in 1901 and served as an outpost for General John Pershing in his pursuit of Pancho Villa. But when Mr. Mischer started the resort in the late 1970s, the town had decayed into little more than a trading post. In consultation with a friend at Universal Studios, Mr. Mischer designed the boardwalk to resemble an old Western town. The move paid off as the town became a favorite site for movie producers.

As it grew -- there are now 91 hotel rooms and 18 rental condominiums -- the resort tried to capture tourists wanting to visit the remote region.

In publicity materials, the resort is compared to other Sun Belt destinations like Palm Springs, Scottsdale and Tucson. Still, it's never been a huge success, due, in large part, to its hard-to-reach locale. Neither of the resort's two restaurants are up to four-star standards. And its golf course is threadbare.

Lajitas isn't much of a town, either. Mr. Mischer owns everything except for a few condos and homes. The town's most famous resident is Clay Henry III, the third generation of beer-drinking goats to serve as unofficial mayor. The election is actually a fund-raiser for the local medics, who charge $1 for each vote.

Terlingua, meanwhile, made little effort to battle the harsh landscape. Many residents live in trailers or adobe houses and shun conveniences. And despite the dusty environment, it's taboo to wash cars because it wastes valuable water.

"It's not easy to live here," says Sid McMilllan, who recently weathered a rattlesnake bite above his knee.

Still, more and more people are trying. Terlingua's population is hard to quantify because many residents are seasonal and the town is so spread out. But the high school has doubled its population -- now about 60 -- in the four years since it opened.

To attract more growth, local merchants have organized the Study Butte Water Supply Corp. to provide water to the area. The group, which has worked for nine years on the project, got the $1.5 million for the system by applying for grants aimed at improving conditions in colonias, or impoverished areas along the border, and hopes to start pumping water to customers by March, says Glenn Fults, who serves on the corporation's board.

But board members have endured animosity from residents who fear the new water supply will "ruin the town" by attracting outsiders who complain their cell phones don't work and don't know better than to leave food out for mountain lions.

Mr. Fults doesn't necessarily disagree. "I think this is really going to change the place," he says.

Many also resent Mr. Mischer for commercializing the region in the first place. Mr. Mischer says he is aware of the resentment and has given generously over the years to meet needs in the area. But, he admits, "I don't know if it did any good."

By his own estimate, Mr. Mischer has spent more than $6 million on the property -- excluding the initial cost of the land -- even though it has never been profitable. He says one reason he is selling is because there was little interest among his family in keeping the property.

The sale presents an uncertain future for the 80 people who work in the town. Most live on the property or just across the river in the Mexican town of Paso Lajitas. Many grew up here and have never worked for anyone other than Mr. Mischer.

Mr. Murley, who runs the hotel, says that over the years Mr. Mischer has refused to lay off anyone -- even during the slow summer season. "Other employers may not be so loyal," he says.

Mr. Mischer, who plans to attend the property's auction, stresses that he won't sell if the highest bid doesn't reach a certain level -- which he declines to specify. Either way, he says, he will keep his home near Lajitas. "I think it will turn out to be a nice little town someday," he says.

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01/26/2000
The Wall Street Journal
Texas Journal
T1
(Copyright (c) 2000, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)