Prison's hard sell sounds good to America's forgotten city

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THE real secret of the American West is of a land tamed not by cowboys or wagon trains, but property developers. The same people who put up the Hollywood sign (it originally read Hollywoodland) and built Los Angeles' ever-expanding suburbs are now busy subduing the Colorado Rockies with vast new towns built round ski resorts and golf courses.

But sometimes their visions get the better of them. At the height of the 1950s post-war housing boom, a Czech-born university sociologist named Nathan Mendelsohn came to California to build his own city of dreams. Backed by property investors he bought 82,000 acres of the Mojave Desert and mapped out a vast metropolis 30 miles across, laying roads, power and water lines to thousands of lots.

People still remember the radio jingle: "Buy a piece of the Golden State. You'll be sitting pretty, when you come to California City." Tens of thousands of people arrived by bus and plane and bought their future home sites. To this day California City, by land area, is the third largest city in the state. But where Mendelsohn talked of a million people or more, there were - at the last count - only 8,888. Two hours drive north of Los Angeles, 10 miles off the highway that leads north to Death Valley, the people in this place dream of a McDonald's.

Now California City sees its chance of winning a prosperity that has so far eluded it: a big company is arriving in town, promising 400 solid jobs, a steady employment and tax base. True, a 2,000-bed private jail might send some communities into a fit of Nimbyism. But not California City, which for 40 years has been a city waiting to happen. People are literally praying for the prison. "We are eager for them to come," said one local pastor, Ron Sparks.

Last year the Corrections Corporation of America, the US private prison giant that runs nearly 70 prisons world-wide, including Blakenhurst in the UK, announced plans to build near California City, to a chorus of approval from the town's residents. The ground- breaking ceremony last month was a full-dress affair, with proud speeches, prayers and lunch for 200 people or more.

CCA has often been welcomed by small struggling towns, but never, the company officials say, with quite such enthusiasm. In the teeth of opposition from the powerful local prison officers' union, CCA is building the prison on spec. CCA is bidding to house some of California's 150,000 inmates. Crime is falling, but the market for prisons, CCA insists, remains strong.

Pick up a copy of the California City street map, and a generous grid of avenues and curvy cul-de-sacs unfolds. Cosily named neighbourhoods fan out from the 18-hole golf course and from Central Park, equipped with a lake where Mendelsohn dropped from a helicopter a barrel of water from Central Park, New York.

But the few hundred homes and shops are mainly clustered along California City Boulevard, a generous four-lane main street with no traffic or traffic lights. Once you turn off it, the tarmac runs quickly into dirt roads and eventually turns into desert. The map is mostly a sad joke. You can buy a small house here for the price of a large car.

But locals insist that the prison is driving property prices up at a time when real estate values in California generally have taken off. After all, many other cities have flourished in the Western deserts.

"Palm Springs had movie stars," said Patricia Gorden, a local real estate agent who moved here with her husband in 1960, drawn by Mendelsohn's dream. "Las Vegas had gambling."

California City had the nearby Edwards Air Force Base, but that was hit by the 1990s "downsizing" of the military, and it never managed to attract big industry anyway.

In his office, Mayor Larry Adams, the headmaster of one of California City's two schools, reels off the figures.

Beyond the salaries for the prison staff and guards, 2,000 prisoners means providing 6,000 meals a day, plus a stream of expenditures on cleaning and medical supplies. The annual property tax on the $100m building alone will be about $1 million. But it is the prison that really inspires hope. "There are many of us," said Gorden, "who have worked a long time to help this city do what was promised."