Not all places are like the Bay Area

Sure, there might be more worthwhile causes, such as childhood disease or homelessness, but let’s not forget those poor souls across America who are witnessing their beloved golf courses closing because of a lack of dues-paying members.

Before writing that angry email, please be advised I’m kidding. The remaining members of the de Anza Country Club in beautiful Borrego Springs, in San Diego County, don’t expect your help. Any checks sent will be quickly returned uncashed.

It’s a story worth telling, though, simply because it’s a microcosm of what’s been happening in small “rural” towns across the nation. We live in a proverbial bubble in the Bay Area, and quite often are oblivious as to how much of the nation is struggling.

More by Nick Hoppe

For those readers who are unfamiliar with Borrego Springs (and I would guess that is about 90 percent of you), it’s a town of about 3,000 people. It sits all by itself in the desert, about 1½ hours southwest of Palm Springs and two hours east of San Diego.

It’s a beautiful setting, surrounded by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest in California. It has no traffic signals, no movie theaters, no huge supermarkets, no department stores. Just natural beauty, framed by mountains and desert landscape. And ideal winter weather.

Its isolation is its greatest blessing, and its greatest curse. Come from San Diego and it’s two hours of difficult but scenic winding roads. Come from Palm Springs and it’s 1½ hours of desolation driving, except for a possible quick stop in Salton City, on the shores of the Salton Sea. Their best-selling T-shirt, sold in the liquor store, reads “Salton City — 7 billion flies can’t be wrong!” You get the picture.

Borrego Springs, though, is an oasis. Developed in the 1950s, it quickly grew to 3,000 full-time residents, which is where it stands almost 70 years later. Its main street is wide enough for six lanes of traffic, whereas two lanes would have been more than enough. Prime commercial lots remain unbuilt. The growth never came.

We were introduced to Borrego Springs and the de Anza Country Club about 10 years ago by some friends who had a second home there. They loved the place, and eventually, after several weekend visits, we fell in love as well. The ultimate moment was when we walked into the clubhouse and some longtime members looked up and said excitedly, “Look, here come the youngsters!”

Since we were in our mid-50s at the time, that sounded pretty good. With home prices very reasonable, especially compared to the Bay Area, we were fortunate enough to buy a second home and join the club for some occasional welcome relief from Northern California winters.

Like the town, the club was plugging along when we joined. It had 250 members and some substantial cash reserves. Now it has 132 members and a cash deficit. Members have died or moved away and not been replaced by new homeowners. And interest in golf is at an all-time low.

While Northern California real estate prices have skyrocketed, Borrego Springs prices have dropped considerably. It’s a constant struggle for restaurants, hotels and other businesses to be successful. There is no real industry besides tourism, and the town’s isolated location makes a visitor think twice before making the trip.

I’ve always found it interesting to compare the booming economy of the Bay Area and San Diego, and the Palm Springs area, with its 500,000 people only 1½ hours away, to the small, rural town of Borrego Springs. Various factors make it difficult for some towns to flourish in this country, and Borrego Springs, despite its attractions, is a prime example.

I’ll never give up on it, though. The golf course may or may not survive (and I think it will), but the hiking and biking and wildflowers and dark nights will always be available. After 70 years, I still believe the town will be discovered, and those six lanes of traffic on the main street won’t look quite as ridiculous.

Then again, a part of me wants it to stay just the same, with no traffic signal within 30 miles. Solitude can be a beautiful thing. Yep, a blessing and a curse.

Nick Hoppe’s column appears Tuesdays in Datebook. Email:

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