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Troubled desert towns seek tax bonanza with marijuana farms

Desert hot springs - Copy

Two years ago, in this desolate Coachella Valley town surrounded by scraggly mesquite, voters heartily endorsed marijuana as a cure for their ailing economy.

For decades, Desert Hot Springs had relied on its steaming mineral waters to lure tourists to local motels for healing baths and spa treatments. But the town of 28,000 mostly suffered. A third of its residents lived in poverty, and the city filed for municipal bankruptcy in 2001. A housing bust seven years later deepened the fallout.

So in 2014, 68 percent of Desert Hot Springs voters approved California’s first local initiative to authorize industrial cultivation of marijuana. With freeway connections to hundreds of marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County, the town set out to lure pot entrepreneurs to revive its industrial districts with new construction bursting with cannabis.

Now Desert Hot Springs is home to a pot real estate bonanza, with well-heeled outsiders snapping up land and buildings to develop massive, city-sanctioned grow facilities, capable of producing thousands of pounds of marijuana in multiple yields a year.

Near towering wind farms, a drab warehouse complex is being transformed into a marijuana production center called “Pineapple Park.” Down the street, Santa Ana dispensary operators are readying a cathedral-like cannabis greenhouse. On a remote desert parcel, investors just secured a permit to build a million square feet of buildings to lease out to pot growers.

“Cultivation is going to explode in California,” said Desert Hot Springs Mayor Scott Matas, a marketing consultant, former UPS driver and private post office owner who championed marijuana development in the town near Palm Springs. “We’re being proactive to what’s coming down the pipeline. I’m a conservative. But I saw an opportunity for jobs and revenues. Is it bold? Absolutely. But I think it’s promising.”

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