A small town's fortunes soar on the wings of the B-1

Swooping out of the craggy desert mountains on Route 14 from Los Angeles, skirting above green-rimmed Palmdale Lake, the wind whipping into a whistle around the car, one feels a moment of anticipation and promise.

Palmdale: a prosperous oasis on the high desert?

Drive on down into town and the vision flickers, but still the signs are there. The lavish new Mexican-style civic center itself is the promise of a town to come - outmatching the one that's here. The new housing tracts form small islands of comfortable modern suburbia in a sea of sand and scrub.

A billboard stands at the corner of Avenue P and the Sierra Highway, across the street from the trailer headquarters of the Palmdale mayor's realty firm. It depicts the comprehensive, self-contained community that Copan Inc. envisions over the dead-flat expanse of Joshua trees. It looks promising.

The feeling here is positive, very positive. Shop owners and businessmen who have blandly paid their $60 to the Chamber of Commerce year in, year out now call up to ask how they can wrest a spot on the parade float or boost Palmdale Pride Week.

The arms race, you might say, is going Palmdale's way.

City hall is even spending $100,000 on a computer system it doesn't really need yet. ''It's the lull before the storm, and we want to be ready for it,'' Mayor Lynda Cook explains.

Palmdale, a little desert town just across the San Gabriel Mountains from Los Angeles, is a town built on airplanes. And now it looks like the B-1 is back.

The anticipation could have been excruciating. The local newspaper, the Antelope Valley Press, has been studded all summer with quotes from the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology on the latest rumors of who will be building which airplanes at what plant. But Palmdale is used to anticipation.

There was the Palmdale ''bulge'' - a mysterious lifting of a massive area of southern California between 1959 and 1974. An ominous portent indeed. Now some scientists are calling it, for the most part, a measuring error.

There was the Palmdale International Airport. In the early 1970s land values climbed and investors from faraway lands bought flat, windy tracts studded with yucca trees - betting on the promise of Los Angeles shifting major international air traffic out to Palmdale.

Today Palmdale International Airport is six times the size of Los Angeles International - 17,750 acres of scrub brush awaiting further environmental impact reports. Palmdalers don't know whether construction will start soon or in 15 years.

But now there is a defense-minded Republican in the White House and 100 B-1 bombers on Palmdale's horizon. Building the forward part of the fuselage, putting the controversial bomber together, and test-flying it will mean 4,050 new jobs during the next five years in this town of - so far - 12,000.

Not all those jobholders, of course, will live and shop in Palmdale. Nearby Lancaster has around 48,000 residents. And not all the growth in the next five years will come from the B-1 plant. Planners (as opposed to boosters) had -expected the local population to grow by at least 36 percent this decade even before President Reagan's B-1 announcement.

But hunched over a map in his glassed-in editor's office at the Antelope Valley Press, Vern Lawson draws in the key sites in the making of the supersonic B-1 and says this contract - awarded to Rockwell International - is enough to keep the local economy stable and growing through the 1980s.

And at this, Palmdale's boosters heave a collective sigh.

They were already positive. They already figured the empty lots along the loosely packed Palmdale Boulevard would fill in soon with new business, that the Joshua trees will fall in favor of the comprehensive, instant neighborhoods that the open space inspires.

In fact, a study by Questor Associates in April predicts that Antelope Valley will be a ''major urban center for southern California'' in coming years.

But Mayor Cook, in an interview, confesses relief to see something solid come along after years of heavy speculation by long-distance investors. Palmdale's has been an economy on a yo-yo.

The town sits in a valley that is the last wide-open space left in Los Angeles County and prices are low. So for developers with big ideas, it's the closest thing around to a clean canvas. The airport, especially, drew in the big ideas. Not much came of them.

And this while Palmdale has lurched from boom to bust largely according to changes in the climate of the arms race. ''Purchase of land,'' remarks Clifford Rawson, a key figure in the modern history of Antelope Valley, ''is like one big casino.''

Put another way, Vern Lawson Jr., who is former city administrator in neighboring Lancaster, and now executive director of Lancaster's Economic Development Corporation, notes that a project like the B-1 has an ''unbelievable impact - either coming or going.''

In bigger ponds, like El Segundo, which is contiguous to the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area; Columbus, Ohio; and Tulsa, Okla. - all cities where Rockwell is putting on workers for the building of some part of the B-1 - the bomber doesn't make as big a splash.

For Palmdale, it may be enough to wash the town onto solid ground, safe from the ebb and flow of national defense policy.

It all started in 1930. The United States Air Force began using the dry lake beds north of Palmdale, on what is now Edwards Air Force base, for test flights. They were vast, flat, and free of fog or smog. The whole of Antelope Valley was only sparsely populated with growers of alfalfa, fruit, and nuts. It was an ideal Air Force romping ground.

When Gen. William J. Fox, a colorful ex-marine now living in Mexico, was head of Los Angeles County Department of Airports, he envisioned the valley as an aviation center. It was mostly just a vision until after World War II. In 1950 the population of Palmdale stood at 900.

Then came the jet age. Palmdale took off with the aerospace industry. The talk of the defense establishement was the ''bomber gap,'' and Palmdale was dubbed the ''jet center.'' First Lockheed, then Northrop, North American (now Rockwell International), and McDonnell-Douglas opened shop at Air Force Plant 42 on the north side of town. Public school enrollment grew 25 percent one year.

More suddenly than it started, it stopped. In 1957 the bomber gap was forgotten for the missile gap. The concept of the manned bomber gave way to the remote-controlled bomb. Some 2,000 new houses in Palmdale stood empty.

''A lot of young people were promised jobs for a long time,'' recalls J. Gordon Shelton, a contractor and longtime pillar of the Palmdale community, ''and no sooner got here, bought houses on low down payments and furniture on low down payments, than they lost their jobs.'' They left, many of them, without their furniture or their down payments.

A local depression ensued at the peak of what was the postwar economic miracle for much of the world. A board of trade put together in 1957 sent an envoy to Washington, Clifford Rawson, to lobby for help. Out of it came some remodeling work to keep the aerospace plants going and a lobbying tradition that has won the Antelope Valley some key amenities over the years for future growth - such as natural gas pipelines from Texas on their way to Los Angeles, the east branch of the California Aqueduct, an ample freeway (built as much for future traffic than for needs already felt), and the Los Angeles Air Traffic Control station (which customarily employs about 1,000).

The Palmdale economy came to another peak in 1973. Lockheed was building the L-1011 Tristar and employed 9,000. Again, orders nose-dived. Two years later, only 1,500 were employed at the plant.

But this time the town was not left half empty. Unemployment was a major factor, enabling workers to hang on for a year or so, waiting for the tide to change. In fact, they did and they didn't. There was no mass exodus, but when Lockheed and others began beefing up their payrolls again, union officials recall that they didn't find a work force there waiting for them either.

The valley was growing up. There were other jobs for an unemployed jet builder. The local economy had broadened its base.

In 1977, when President Jimmy Carter canceled production of the B-1 six months after President Gerald Ford had ordered it, ''the bomb bay doors dropped'' on employment, as a United Automobile Workers spokesman puts it.

The union's Local 887, which represents Rockwell workers all over southern California, had more than 21,000 workers before Carter nixed the bomber. Now they have 8,000. If Congress approves Mr. Reagan's proposal to buy 100 B-1B bombers, the union local's ranks will fill out to their former splendor in five years.

Meanwhile, Copan Inc., the Los Angeles developer planning a neighborhood on the desert tract across from Mayor Cook's realty, couldn't be more delighted with this turn of political events. Most of the company's houses and condominiums will be priced within reach of the $10.50 an hour aerospace workers. Copan has already taken calls from firms that are contracting, either directly with the Air Force or through Rockwell, for work on the B-1.

Usually, says Clifford Rawson, who has made lobbying trips to Washington for the Antelope Valley Board of Trade every year since 1957, smaller aerospace contracters end up working out of hotels and storefront offices in Palmdale for several years, then leaving when their project is complete.

Is it still a casino for land developers? Copan attorney John Everett has high hopes for bringing some ballast to the overwrought economy by attracting a nonaerospace industrial base. ''The L.A. basin is full,'' he says. ''Silicon Valley (a high-technology center in the Santa Clara Valley of northern California) is full. Firms are moving out.'' His ambition, of course, is to woo them to the high desert.

At the Palmdale Chamber of Commerce, manager David Aaker says he gets an average of 20 calls a week from firms interested in moving plants to Palmdale, about one quarter of them from out of state.

Mr. Rawson is less sanguine that way. The Antelope Valley has always been based on aviation, he says, ''the only thing you can really do with the high desert.''

But even if the mayor and chamber of commerce manager can't picture what their town will grow up to five years hence, Palmdalers - who watched nearly 2, 000 members of the national press corps flood the valley early this month to watch the space shuttle Columbia land at Edwards - seem to take it all in stride.

Will the B-1 change business, a waitress at a coffeeshop is asked. ''Probably will,'' she nods. ''Haven't seen anything yet.''

But Vern Lawson at the Antelope Valley Press leans forward again and speculates on whether Northrop will build the classified ''stealth'' bomber at its plant in Hawthorne, Calif., (''It's pretty crowded already'') or here in Palmdale. It makes a difference to Palmdale.

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