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Thursday, Jun 8, 2023

Tired of the City Life? Try Scrub Brush

Lancaster is best known for its wide expanse of desert shrub, a place where cheap land has attracted giant manufacturing plants built by the likes of Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp. But now the Antelope Valley city would like you to come visit and see the sites. That’s right. Hang out, be a tourist. And it may not be an entirely wacky idea. After all, the city is not far from the state poppy preserve, is home to terrain ideal for hikers and mountain bikers, and has the proper wind and space for kite enthusiasts. Then there’s the city’s redeveloped downtown, kind of a cultural oasis amid the scrub brush, with boutiques, lofts, an art museum, a movie theater and restaurants. And with all that, Destination Lancaster was born, a marketing campaign that hopes to attract L.A.-area residents who may only know the city as a freeway stop on the way to Las Vegas. “The Antelope Valley has a considerable amount of things to do,” said Ron Emard, chairman of the Destination Lancaster board and co-owner of a local Harley-Davidson dealership. “We’ve just never really branched out.” The origins of Destination Lancaster go back about four years, when the city began contemplating a way to increase its tax revenue, and visitors who shop, eat at restaurants and sleep in local hotels were seen as one possible source. Finally, on Feb. 1, the city and local businesses took the concrete step of forming the Lancaster Tourism Business Improvement District. The five-year partnership between the city and its seven major hotels establishes a 2 percent bed tax, on top of an existing 7 percent bed tax charged on all stays of less than one month. The revenue, which the city estimates will be about $250,000 annually, will be used for a joint marketing campaign largely aimed at Los Angeles-area residents looking for a weekend getaway. Hospitality consultant Jeff Lugosi, senior vice-president at PKF Consulting in Los Angeles, applauded the city for its efforts but said Lancaster has its work cut out. “It’s not like Third Street in Santa Monica or Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena,” Lugosi said. “It’s going to be a big challenge.” Old problem, new solution However, Emard, who also sits on the Antelope Valley Fair board, said he believes the city is under appreciated and has attractions and events that should have broad appeal. Already, the city’s state-of-the-art soccer complex with 35 fields hosts several national tournaments, while a large softball complex also commands large crowds. All in all, they both drew an estimated 60,000 people and funneled an estimated $4 million into the city’s economy. He pointed to the annual Streets of Lancaster Grand Prix, a weekend of festivities that features professional Go Kart racing, and the Lancaster Performing Arts Center, which hosts events ranging from performances by rhythm and blues band Boyz II Men to an upcoming stint of “Fiddler on the Roof.” The city also hopes to attract weekend clientele to a renovated stretch of Lancaster Boulevard that has more than 40 new retailers, including Kinetic Brewing, a restaurant and microbrewery, Laemmle Theatres and Pour d’Vino, a wine lounge and bistro. “Downtown is a draw,” said Luis Garibay, senior projects coordinator for Lancaster. “We are very strong from a business standpoint.” In establishing the marketing campaign, the city is building on a surprising statistic: hotel occupancy in the city hovers around 80 percent during the week. But for years, the city has struggled to fills its beds with anything other than government subcontractors and people passing through. As a result, its weekend occupancy is about 55 percent, Garibay said. However, demand is high enough that an 88-room Best Western Hotel is expected to start construction in the next few months with a 93-room Towne Place Suites by Marriot to follow later in the year. Also, a boutique hotel is planned for the heart of downtown by developer Scott Ehrlich. His Woodland Hills company InSite Development is responsible for most of the renovations to downtown Lancaster, including the Laemmle Theatres and Museum of Art History. The developer said the $10 million hotel will resemble more Hollywood than Lancaster, with a lounge pool, hip bars and local restaurants. The six-story hotel is still deciding on a corporate flag, but Ehrlich is leaning toward selecting Hyatt Hotels Corp. However, there is a funding issue. The project received $2 million in redevelopment funds to construct its foundation, but must seek out other funding sources now that redevelopment programs are being phased out statewide. Ehrlich said he plans to finish the project with a combination of private funds and other public money. “Don’t bet against me,” Ehrlich said. “I’ve got a good track record.” Some grumbling Randy Miranda, general manager of Lancaster’s Hampton Inn & Suites and member of the board for Destination Lancaster, said all the new hotels will probably lead to a temporary dip in occupancy until the marketing campaign picks up and more visitors come to the city. “It will pick up,” he said. The Destination Lancaster board last week hired DiMario & Associates, a Long Beach firm to manage the marketing. The campaign will feature multiple media including online, print, radio and television. It will start when revenue from the new bed tax is available after March. Emard thinks local businesses should piggyback on the campaign. For example, he wants to offer a package that includes discount rentals of his Harley-Davidson motorcycles in conjunction with discounted hotel bookings. The city’s biggest booster is its mayor, R. Rex Parris. In an e-mail, he called the area unique. “The Antelope Valley is unlike anywhere else in Los Angeles County,” Parris said. “Here visitors can experience the magnificence of the High Desert without being isolated from shopping, dining, entertainment and other amenities.” Even with all that, Lugosi is unsure. He said L.A. residents may visit the Antelope Valley in the spring when the poppies bloom and some other events may attract others, but L.A. residents are unlikely to leave the basin in large numbers for a weekend getaway in the High Desert. “Hey, they’re making the best of it,” Lugosi said. “What’s the alternative? They can’t just turn their back and walk away.”

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