The man who owns this town cultivates no regal bearing, displays no gaudy Trumpian affectations, exhibits no megalomaniacal tendencies.
No, David Landman looks like any other middle-aged guy on a lazy Sunday afternoon, hunched over a bowl of chicken soup at a handsome, varnished wooden bar, a half-drunk pint of beer at his elbow and a golf tournament flickering on the TV over his right shoulder. He chats up the bartender, Lacy, laughs at some witty remark, unfurls a paper napkin to dab his close-cropped white beard that, along with his thinning dome of silver hair and khaki shorts and sandals, makes him resemble Papa Hemingway kicking back in Key West.
You would never suspect, by appearances, that this is the man who owns that handsome varnished bar, the man who employs Lacy and everyone else at the hot springs spa and resort he also owns on Old Highway 80, the main drag along which he owns 28 other parcels of land, including many boarded-up businesses, a few single-family bungalows, a partially drained (but ecologically rebounding) lake, pungent mineral wells and scores of tumbleweed-strewn fallow dirt lots.
There is one thing that gives Landman away: He’s wearing a black T-shirt with the phrase “Victory Is Mine” emblazoned on the front.
Victory over what, you might ask.
Landman, 67, is the first to admit he never set out to, essentially, buy a town. He swears it all was “by mistake.” Things like this just seem to happen to him and his wife, Helen. He shakes his head with equal parts amusement and bemusement.
The way Landman tells it – he uses the phrase “long story short” often, but do not believe him – he sort of stumbled into a career in mortgage banking in Northern California after a bleak Willy Loman existence selling wholesale clothing, and when his bank firm got bought out by a company that got bought out by an even bigger company, he used a “golden parachute” in 1997 to buy, on a whim, a rundown RV park at the Jacumba exit off Interstate 8 and turn it into a clothing-optional resort that now ranks among the top 10 in the nation by those who judge such things.
That success, while satisfying, didn’t exactly infuse Landman with the naked ambition to take over majority control of Jacumba, the far-eastern unincorporated San Diego County border town whose population, 561 in the 2010 census, is far exceeded by its elevation, 2,800 feet. Seems that, long story short, a cabal of residents that called themselves the Jacumba Revitalization Committee approached him four and a half years ago to buy the town’s centerpiece property, the Jacumba Hot Springs Spa and Resort, which had fallen on hard times as its out-of-town owners had fallen in deep arrears. (The town is pronounced “Ha-Coomba,” which sounds kind of like the snort of amusement Landman gave when first approached with the deal.)
Landman deferred. People persisted. He begged off again and again. The resort, once fashionable, had become a dump. He’d be crazy to take it on. They kept plugging away. They wore him down. He relented, finally, in 2012.
“I didn’t want much part of it at all, really,” he said. “Put it this way: The roof over the hot tub was in the hot tub. These people (in town) kept saying, ‘we’ll throw this in.’ Turns out I found out the note holder (on the hot spring) was living in Temecula (in Riverside County). We met at a Marie Callender’s. I made him an offer that day and he said, ‘Well, my family meets every Sunday for dinner, and I’ll run it by them and see what we can do. By the time I got back home two hours later there was a phone call from him, saying, ‘We accept your offer.’”
For $1.5 million, he now owned the hot springs resort. But wait, there’s more: By purchasing the promissory note, Landman also had acquired about 80 percent of downtown, which amounts basically to a four-block stretch of Old Highway 80 and a few side streets, as well as some land in the foothills with views overlooking that stark russet fence that runs along the U.S.-Mexican border.
“That’s what I mean when I say ‘by mistake,’ because we didn’t know 29 properties were secured with that note,” he said.
First thing, Landman set about legally changing the town’s name to Jacumba Hot Springs. Long story short, it was a branding thing. Then all he wanted to do was refurbish and reopen the spa and hot springs, which was a flourishing operation before a series of managers representing a Chicago-based ownership group apparently ran the resort into the ground. That, and maybe open a nice restaurant, cloth napkins and all, as part of the restored grounds.
What to do with all these empty storefronts?
“That was a good question,” he said, laughing.
Landman is quick to point out that he technically does not own the entire town, not everything lock, stock and denuded landscape.
He doesn’t own the tiny grocery store on the main drag, nor a couple of dilapidated wooden storefronts without tenants. Some residents, of course, own their own homes on the few streets jutting out from the main artery of Old Highway 80. The county owns the community park, the library and youth center; the federal government owns the post office. An artist collective called the Institute of Perception, headed by Kirk Roberts, owns a swath of land on the hillside.
Landman’s purchase, though, raised expectations and eyebrows among locals. Headlines in the San Diego Union-Tribune (“He Holds The Keys To Jacumba’s Future”) and the San Diego Reader (“Jacumba Trusts the Naked Guy”) only heightened the anticipation/anxiety.
(Brief aside: The Landmans live at De Anza, the clothing-optional resort 4 miles from downtown, but outside those confines, he remains fully clothed at all times and, scurrilous rumors to the contrary, has no plans to turn Jacumba Hot Springs into a clothing-optional town.)
“I think a few people thought at first, he might try it, turn the town into Nakedland,” said Alta Rose, behind the counter at the Mountain Sage Market. “But Dave, he’s a pretty good guy. He’s started to fix it up a little bit. He did real nice with the spa and refurbished all of that. He’s got a nice bar and restaurant in there. It’s expensive. I like the fish and chips. I’ve got a daughter-in-law that works (at the hot springs), two granddaughters that work there, my grandson works there. So it’s good for employment.”
“I’ve seen a lot of people try to ‘help’ the town,” Rose said. “Basically what people do, from my experience, is they think they’re going to refurbish everything, the whole town. Well, you can see. Everything’s empty across the street. The rents are too high on those two buildings. Both of those are Dave’s. It’s really hard to keep a business here. My husband and I (at one time) owned Rose’s Propane. I had Rose’s Video. I used to own this store. Now, I just work here.”
A Jacumba resident, T.J. Farr, interposed himself. Farr, a veteran, lived in Jacumba until 1974, when he moved elsewhere in California. He’s back now and not liking what he sees.
“The hot springs, they used to be right across the street in the park, and it was free and open to the public,” he said, referring to the source of the springs, where water now is pumped a block east to the hot springs resort’s pools and Jacuzzi. “I don’t see how they can take away the springs, close ’em. Isn’t it a natural resource?”
Rose shook her head.
“Well, T.J., it goes with the town,” she said. “The person that buys that town gets the springs.”
Because he’s lived near Jacumba since the late 1990s, Landman said he’s not surprised by the reaction to his bulk purchase. One town wag nicknamed him “The Duke of Jacumba,” and “the name stuck,” he said.
“Some of (the residents) were against it,” he continued. “To some people, bringing any new business in town, they were against. There are people who live up here that want no progress at all. So, yeah, there was some negativity. Fortunately, most people are for it. They want to see (Jacumba) improved.”
To the charge that, in slightly less than two years, he has yet to find tenants for the spiffed-up storefronts on the main drag, Landman preaches patience. And he also points out that “there are investment opportunities available” for anyone wanting to partner with him in filling those storefronts.
“Well, they’ve all been renovated,” he said. “… You wouldn’t believe what these places looked like.”
Much of Landman’s time and money these past two years has gone into the town’s signature property – the hot springs. It wasn’t just a sagging roof over the mineral springs hot tub that needed fixing. The rooms were trashed and the previous managers of the resort “cut the pump lines (to the springs) on their way out. The place hadn’t seen a coat of paint maybe in decades.
“Long story short,” he said. “The place was in bad shape.”
The 24 rooms (rates range from $99 to $129 a night) have been overhauled and now sport hardwood flooring and a desert southwest motif. He’s opened Tepary Southwest Grill, whose large dining room is adjacent to the Raven’s Nest bar, which serves as a meeting place for locals most nights. An in-house massage therapist has been added, and both outdoor mineral pools are large enough for lap swimming, while the indoor hot tub featuring a skylight is large enough for a party, which is what took place one recent night when more than a dozen San Diegans descended on the resort to celebrate someone’s 50th birthday.
“It’s a nice little spot,” said guest Jong Park, who owns a bistro in Ocean Beach. “Their restaurant is good and reasonable. This is a good place to come, hang out, party, wake up in the morning, have breakfast, drive back home. That’s the thing: You feel like you’re far away, but it’s close (to San Diego).”
In the year since the re-opening, the resort has attracted mostly weekenders from San Diego (about an hour’s drive) and Yuma (90 minutes), but also passing groups of motorcyclists and car clubs, even a few bicyclists making their way from Florida to California, or vice versa.
“We’ve been on about 15 (cross-country cycling) blogs of people who’ve stopped and stayed here and loved it,” Landman said. “Another selling point for us is that, in the summer, our temperature (averages) about 92. That’s 15 degrees cooler than the desert and warmer than San Diego.”
Good weather, in other words, to lounge by the mineral pools. But Landman acknowledges what is empirically evident as soon as you drive into town – there’s not much else to do in Jacumba.
The resort provides a folder of “Things To Do” in each room. It mostly consists of three short hiking trips in town that visit significant places (the lake, mineral spring and decaying site of the Old Vaughn Hotel, circa 1920; Jacumba Peak; and the “Chinese Castle,” built by a businessman in the 1920s as a second home) and another hike that starts from a trailhead at De Anza, the clothing-optional resort, and heads into Anza Borrego State Park.
Landman has plans, though, to turn the town into a mini-Taos, N.M. He foresees art galleries and boutiques moving into his empty storefronts.
“We got one guy thinking of taking this (husk of a) gas station next door and turning it into a high-class auto restoration shop,” he said. “You know, the type of cars that sell for $100,000 to $900,000. We’re hoping he’ll have a showroom outside under the canopy and maybe he’ll teach welding and auto shop.”
First, he needs more people to flock to the place. De Anza has a steady stream of visitors due to its high profile in “naturist” circles, but the hot springs resort still is an “undiscovered gem.”
“This has been more work in two years than De Anza’s been in 15,” he said. “Yeah, you could say there’s been some hassles.”
Owning a town – or the vast majority of one – is not all it’s cracked up to be.
“Way more work than I wanted at (age) 67,” he said. “The biggest hurdle, frankly, has been dealing with the county and permits. Like, we inherited a (toxic) burn site where it hasn’t been used since the ’40s, but, somehow, the county found out that it was there, and now they monitor it every three months (to make sure Landman follows environmental regulations). It just sits there and I have to maintain it. I apparently need to put more topsoil on it, more fencing up, no-trespassing signs. It hasn’t been a lot of money; just a hassle.
“The hotel is running fine. The bar is running fine. The kitchen we’ve had problems with. We’ve had five different executive chefs, including one who cooked at Applebee’s for 17 years, but he couldn’t cook, well, breakfast. Long story short, didn’t know how to make breakfast, but insisted on the morning shift for personal reasons. Another guy did OK on the cooking but was shaking down the waitresses, like, ‘Give me your tips, or I’ll cut the brake lines on your car.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ The problem is, in a small community like this, the talent pool is pretty shallow. But the kitchen (staff) now is phenomenal. I’m just telling you the challenges.”
This is not what people want to hear, Landman knows. They want to hear about how it’s good to be king, how fulfilling it is to be the master of all you survey. And he does love it, truly, he does.
Well, long story short …
“When we get this going,” he said, “and people will come up to me and ask whether (one of his parcels) is for sale or for rent, I’ll say, ‘Yes.’”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
JACUMBA HOT SPRINGS
Location: Three miles southwest of Interstate 8, the Carrizo Gorge Road exit. Distance from downtown San Diego: 70 miles.
Contact: (619) 766-4333