Suburb holds on to history in downturn

A building in Old Town Temecula Valley

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Bob Moon: Now the latest in our occasional series "Close to Home." We've been taking a look at how two very different towns -- one here in California and one in Minnesota -- are faring in the recession. Today we take you back to Southern California's Temecula Valley. It's a collection of fast-growing suburbs just northeast of San Diego. And while much of the development is new, the area also has deep and lucrative ties to the Old West. Some of that history is now in peril.

KPCC's Steven Cuevas looks at the valley's effort to hang on to its rich past in the midst of an uncertain economic future.


STEVEN CUEVAS: If someone tells you, 'Hey, meet me in Temecula,' chances are you'll wind up here. This is "Old Town," though it's not so easy to tell. Modern structures fashioned after century-old saloons and banks nestle alongside the real thing; colorful old mercantile buildings, barns -- turned into upscale eateries and trendy shops. There's even a windmill or two.

RICK LEIGH: If you look up here. That's what it's built out of. So it's just that stacked...

Rick Leigh gives me a tour of the hundred-year-old adobe building he bought a few years ago. It's a former trading post, turned boutique. He sells fancy gifts for the home and some women's apparel. "Old traditions, new opportunities" is a favorite slogan here. But "new opportunities" are drying up.

LEIGH: Just seems like it really has died off big time as far as home decor and stuff like that. We're gonna have to make come changes real soon.

A few years ago Leigh wanted to knock down the old trading post and building something new, like a restaurant. But local historians like Rebecca Farnbach convinced him that history can pay off.

REBECCA FARNBACH: We want to maintain this not only for our own history and to save it but because of the tourist destination so that people won't be disappointed when they come down here from L.A. or wherever.

In good times, a couple million people visit the valley's wine country and historic downtowns every year. But these aren't good times for "Old Town" merchants like Leigh. He's trying to sell expensive home decor in an area plagued by foreclosures. So Leigh is toying with that restaurant idea again -- tourists haven't given up on lunch -- or he may lose the place. Then "Old Town" could start feeling like more like ghost town.

I'm at Vail Ranch, a 4.5 acre spread dotted with some of the oldest buildings in Temecula. All are slated for restoration.

JERRY TESSIER: In the old barn we're looking for a wine store, hopefully we'll have a couple retail stores, galleries or antique stories and there'll be some history displays.

Jerry Tessier is the developer and contractor. He says people think renovation isn't worth it.

TESSIER: I think there's a higher value to historic projects because they have a sense of uniqueness and character that better attracts tenants and customers and clients to those projects.

But with a frozen credit market Tessier can't raise the $6 million needed to start this project. It's the same story for other landmarks across the Temecula Valley.

Ten miles north of Vail Ranch in the town of Wildomar you come upon a sight right out of an Andrew Wyeth painting. In a wide field of amber grass, a pale-blue tower sits along side a rambling farmhouse. Its white brocade curtains? They're actually painted onto sheets of plywood.

BOB CASHMAN: It looks like its occupied, it's actually just wood with windows painted on.

City Councilman Bob Cashman helped save the buildings from demolition and had them moved to this open field. The landowner wanted to make them the star attraction of yet another "old town" shopping district.

CASHMAN: Because of the economy that's not going to happen right now. So his land if for sale.

If the land is sold, the buildings could be demolished unless local historians again step in to to save them. Right now they can't afford to. But Temecula preservationist Darrel Farnbach says none of these projects has to happen overnight.

DARREL FARNBACH: This is a recession. It's temporary. We're gonna come out of it. So we're in it for the long haul.

The history buffs are confident they can weather the hard times. It's not so clear if the Temecula Valley's historic buildings can do the same.

In Temecula, Calif., Im Steven Cuevas for Marketplace.

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