CAL-NEV-ARI — It’s dark and mostly empty in the low-slung, 1960s-era casino here, with a handful of people at the bar and just one or two others playing slots.
The streets in this dusty, isolated town aren’t paved, but there’s almost nothing to drive to, anyway — no doctors offices, shopping centers or much else around here.
But there’s plenty of vacant land, and Cal-Nev-Ari’s co-founder is again embarking on a tough but not-unheard-of task in Southern Nevada: selling real estate in the middle of nowhere.
Nancy Kidwell is trying to unload more than 500 acres of mostly vacant land here for $8 million, after her attempts in 2010 to sell for $17 million fell flat. Looking to retire, the 78-year-old is offering most of the town, including its casino, diner, convenience store, 10-room motel, RV park and mile-long dirt airstrip.
Listing broker Fred Marik says the “main thing we’re selling,” however, is land.
“That’s the value,” he said, noting the businesses here are “just breaking even.”
During the bubble years last decade, investors bought land in rural towns sprinkled outside Las Vegas for projects that eventually fizzled, including suburban-style subdivisions and a resort designed like a fairy-tale castle. At one point, people even got into a bidding war for Kidwell’s holdings but backed out when the economy crashed.
Today, a sale in Cal-Nev-Ari could bring new life to this hole-in-the-wall community of 350 people, some 70 miles south of Las Vegas off U.S. 95. But without the development craze of yesteryear or skyrocketing land prices pushing builders out of Las Vegas, who would buy property in a place like this?
By all accounts, the pool of prospects is relatively small. It includes people who already own real estate in the area; are willing to gamble on remote, unincorporated towns with little to no growth; or would develop an attraction that lures visitors, according to local brokers who handle these listings.
“It takes a person with some vision,” broker Tony Castrignano said.
Castrignano, owner of Sky Mesa Realty & Capital, is trying to sell the 80-acre town of Nipton, Calif. Owners Jerry and Roxanne Freeman, of Henderson, are seeking $5 million.
Nearly an hour south of the Strip between Interstate 15 and Searchlight, Nipton has a handful of businesses, including a hotel, an RV park and a country store that offers, among other things, lottery tickets.
It also has a solar array, water rights and ample space, and it gets visitors “from all over the world,” Castrignano said. An ideal spot, perhaps, for people to live off the grid in an eco-friendly compound?
As Castrignano sees it, investors “could pretty much do what (they) want” with the town.
“We like to say that it’s conveniently located in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
• • •
Compared to Las Vegas, land in rural towns an hour or so outside the city can cost cents on the dollar.
Some owners want anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000 per acre in such places as Sandy Valley, Logandale and Searchlight, listings show. Kidwell, for one, wants around $17,000 per acre, Marik said.
In the Las Vegas area, by comparison, land sold for a median of about $317,000 per acre last year, according to Colliers International.
Then again, Las Vegas has jobs, schools, hospitals, an international airport and other trappings of a major metropolitan area that are largely missing from outlying communities.
Keller Williams Realty agent Rick Brenkus says there are “dozens of properties for sale” in these towns but “only a few sales per year.” In some areas, Brenkus said, his group is the only one that has “sold anything in the last six or nine months.”
Some investors prefer to buy land rather than deposit money in a bank and collect small interest payments. But with little to no construction in the rural outposts, the chances of selling land to developers “is kind of remote,” he said.
“I certainly want to paint it with a positive brush, but it’s very competitive right now,” he said.
Land broker and investor Bill Lenhart doesn’t expect any new projects in Cal-Nev-Ari to materialize for a long time, as there’s plenty of other land in the region — at reasonable prices and with more infrastructure — that “make a lot more sense.”
Lenhart, founder of Sunbelt Development & Realty Partners, knows first-hand that selling property in a small town is no easy task: He has a listing for a failed, boom-era subdivision in Searchlight, about 10 miles north of Cal-Nev-Ari.
Searchlight — Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s hometown — is a rural community with double-wides and abandoned mines. Some 540 people lived there by 2010.
Still, housing investors laid bets on the town during the go-go years. The Cottonwood Lake Homes subdivision, across from Harry Reid Elementary School, called for 65 houses spread over 16 acres, according to county records.
Sales prices initially were strong — one house sold in 2007 for $511,000 and another in 2008 for $499,000 — but the project went bust.
Today, the walled subdivision contains paved roads, 13 houses and lots of empty land. The original developer sold four of the homes, and investors who foreclosed on the project in 2011 sold the other nine, all in the $100,000 range, county records show.
Lenhart doesn’t have an asking price for the 52 remaining, vacant lots in Cottonwood, but he expects to sell them for less than $400,000 total. The property is an hour’s drive from Las Vegas and about 13 miles west of the Cottonwood Cove marina, though homebuilders “are lukewarm on it,” he said.
Out-of-state, publicly traded homebuilding companies, which dominate Las Vegas’ new-home market, “won’t touch it,” but a private builder might, Lenhart said.
All told, brokers take listings in outlying areas “out of obligation,” he said without elaborating, not because they’re hunting for deals.
“I don’t know anybody who’s prospecting for assignments in Pahrump,” he said of the rural town of 36,000 an hour west of Las Vegas. “And you’re talking to a guy who owns hundreds of acres in Pahrump.”
• • •
When real estate values were soaring in Las Vegas, plenty of investors looked outside the metro area for cheaper land and launched housing developments in places like Pahrump, Mesquite and Bullhead City, Ariz.
Buyers also went to the smaller, pint-sized towns in the region.
Sandy Valley, on the Nevada-California border, had only 2,000 residents by 2010. But during the bubble, Focus Property Group, developer of the 3,500-acre Mountain’s Edge and 1,200-acre Providence communities in Las Vegas, bought swaths of land there. According to court records, the company acquired at least 300 acres in the town.
After the economy tanked, Focus lost much of its land in Sandy Valley to foreclosure, property records show.
Focus founder and CEO John Ritter was unavailable to comment Wednesday, a representative said.
About 15 miles east of Sandy Valley, Goodsprings is known for its Pioneer Saloon, a bar and restaurant built in 1913. Just 230 people lived there by 2010.
But in 2006, investors Charles Whitley and Melissa Henry bought 25 acres there for $1 million and unveiled plans for “Nova Town." At the time, Henry described their proposed resort as a “fairy-tale-like town” with “enchanting fountains, ponds, little bridges and flower beds.”
An artist’s rendering showed a Disney-esque castle with portholes, stained-glass windows and blue flags flying from towers.
The resort was never built, and Whitley and Henry lost the land to foreclosure in 2010, county records show.
Efforts to reach them for comment were unsuccessful.
Cal-Nev-Ari, meanwhile, is by no means desolate. It has water, electric and natural-gas service; a community center; and a volunteer-run fire station. Homes sit alongside the airstrip, and some have their own hangars.
About 25 people work for Kidwell’s businesses here, and all but one of them live in Cal-Nev-Ari. The other resides in Searchlight.
Nancy Kidwell founded the town in the mid-1960s with her first husband, Everette “Slim” Kidwell. They learned about the property when Slim, who operated aviation facilities at the Torrance, Calif., airport, flew by and noticed the abandoned airstrip, which had been used as a training facility during World War II.
They acquired 640 acres from the federal government, named their new town after its home state and the two nearby, and, according to the Los Angeles Times, installed a sign: “Cal-Nev-Ari, Population: 4. Watch Us Grow.” The other residents were their cat and dog.
Slim, 34 years older than Nancy, died in 1983. Years later, she married Verne “Ace” Kidwell, Slim’s son from a prior marriage, who himself was 14 years older than her. Ace died in 2011.
The two Kidwells, who both died from Alzheimer’s disease, are buried in a small, private cemetery here, with space between them for Nancy’s plot.
By almost any measure, Cal-Nev-Ari is a speck of a town. But during the boom years, would-be buyers eyeing the place for housing developments were “bartering back and forth” over the land, bidding up to $24 million, Kidwell says.
“My attorneys were astounded,” she said.
She was interested in selling, but once the economy collapsed, the buyers “all just drifted away.”
Kidwell listed her holdings in 2010, but by that time, the bubble had already burst and the economy was a mess.
“We had a little interest, but not a whole lot,” she said.
Marik, of Las Vegas Commercial & Business Sales, had never visited Cal-Nev-Ari until he got the listing a few months ago. But he’s familiar with this part of the county.
He brokered the sale of the Searchlight Nugget casino and some nearby property to the Herbst family last year and the sale of an abandoned, bank-owned subdivision in Searchlight to a couple in Seattle.
The subdivision, with paved roads and street signs but not a single house, is adjacent to Searchlight’s airport, and the sale included part of the runway. Last year, buyer Bill Turnbull — owner of RC Aerodyne, which sells remote-control helicopters and airplanes — said he hadn’t decided what to do with it, but he considered holding product demonstrations or other events where remote-control enthusiasts could fly aircraft.
Marik is pitching Cal-Nev-Ari as a blank canvas. His marketing materials say the town could have, among other things, a dude ranch, parachute center, survival school, marijuana resort, air races, a shooting range, paint-gun park, drone center and motorcycle and ATV tours.
The town already is an attraction of sorts: People fly here to eat, gamble and then take off, an afternoon outing for a retiree with a pilot’s license. Two to five planes fly in each weekday, with 25 to 30 a day on weekends, Marik said.
Kate Colton, who has lived here for about 20 years, says a marijuana business would be “a little scary.” But she’s happy that Kidwell, whom she says is one of her closest friends, is trying to open a new chapter in life, and Colton figures that new investors would bring a shot of commerce to the area.
“The economy here could use a boost,” she said.
Her husband, former Nevada state treasurer Stan Colton, said it “would be wonderful” if someone paved the streets — “You can’t wash your car and expect it to stay clean for the day.”
He’d like to see more housing and also figures Cal-Nev-Ari would be a great spot for warehouses, distribution centers or other industrial property.
Kidwell, he noted, is offering more than 500 acres right on a highway.
“What more could you ask for?” he said.