A JA businessman with a penchant for preserving American history buys a historic town along Route 66 for the price of a small house
By LYNDA LIN, Pacific Citizen Assistant Editor
CHINO, Calif. – June 2005 – To the untrained eye, the small desert town of Amboy, California is part of a forgotten world heavy with dust and crumbling with neglect ever since its once booming location along Route 66 fell away from use. Once when Route 66 was king, Amboy provided weary travelers with a place to sleep and a hot meal while their cars were refilled with gas, but today the town has a population of zero and its existence is continually in danger of being swallowed up by the Mojave Desert’s raw environment. That is until Albert Okura saw a premonition in the desert.
“I see the future — the future is going to be moving out [to the desert],” said Okura, who recently bought Amboy for $425,000 cash, a price he jokes is about the going rate for a small house in this market. He has a plan to restore and preserve the rich history of the town and eventually turn it back into a must-stop location for travelers and tourists.
“I’ve always dreamt of owning a town,” he said. “I think it’s destiny.”
Perhaps there is no better way to describe how a Sansei who grew up in rural Wilmington, Calif. as the nephew of civil rights leader and past JACL president K. Patrick Okura would become the unlikely owner of an indelible piece of American history.
“From the time I was a little kid, I believed that I had a destiny in life, but I had no clue what it was,” he said. “I would collect things like comic books and Mad Magazine and save them … I would always go over board.”
Now he counts an iconic town (a little over 500 acres) with its own gas station, motel, restaurants, post office, church, and two airplane runways as part of his collection. How the town stands today is how it has always been.
But owning Amboy was a dream that almost did not come true. Okura was prevented from buying Amboy in 2003 when it was originally put up for sale by then owners Walt Wilson and Timothy White. The asking price just two years ago was a whopping $1.9 million, which Okura was able to negotiate down to $1.2 million.
“I thought it was a great deal,” he said with a laugh. An accounting mix-up forced him to drop out of the deal, but he “never forgot about Amboy,” so when he heard that Amboy was being offered to the highest bidder in March, Okura jumped at the chance. This time, he convinced owner Bessie Burris, who owned and operated Amboy with her husband Buster for many years before Wilson and White, that he was the next ideal owner. Not wanting to lose the town for the second time, Okura hopped in his car and drove to Burris’ home in Twentynine Palms to close the deal with cash.
“We have complete confidence in Mr. Okura’s ability to restore the town, preserving it for our children and their children’s children,” said Bonnie Barnes, Bessie’s granddaughter.
Thinking big seems to be in his blood. Okura, 53, started his fast food career as an hourly employee at Burger King and then opened his own restaurant chain Juan Pollo, which now has 31 store locations in Los Angeles and neighboring counties. His preservationist spirit spilled over into his business in 1998, when Okura saved the original McDonald’s building in San Bernardino, Calif. from demise by purchasing the historic site to house the Juan Pollo headquarters and a museum dedicated to McDonald’s history complete with free tours on the weekends.
Okura, who is a fan of McDonald’s former chairman and original innovator Ray Kroc’s business philosophy, knows that in order to be successful, he has to set himself apart from competition. Owning little pieces of California history is a way to grow his business. Although he recognizes the marketing and publicity opportunities in owning Amboy, he insisted that his purchase was never a gimmick.
“A lot of people take Amboy so seriously, I would never play around with that,” said Okura.
His vision for the desolate town is clear: he plans to repopulate the town by bringing it back up to code (replacing the antiquated plumbing and electrical systems is his current major project) and providing free housing for employees. He wants to preserve the “character of the town” by maintaining all of the original buildings without even repainting, but he has larger plans of developing the area surrounding Amboy by possibly renovating the old Amboy school into a Juan Pollo University and converting another site into a retreat for employees. Amboy is also home to a natural wonder aptly named Amboy Crater, which Okura said was not included in the purchase but has the appeal of “something you would see at Disneyland.”
Okura does not predict making a profit from the town, which he estimates will take at least $5,000-$10,000 a week just to maintain. For now, however, he said just getting the gas station open would make the town a natural stop for those traveling to Laughlin, Twentynine Palms and other popular desert attractions.
Tourists and history enthusiasts and travelers that simply pass through are attracted by Route 66 and Amboy’s googie architecture. They flock to the town year-round to take photos and peer in windows. Tony Craig, a Los Angeles-based artist who has painted many sites and signs along Route 66, said Amboy’s buildings are “the stuff of pictures, postcards and paintings yet to be done.”
Okura’s plans for Amboy have won him many fans including James M. Conkle, executive director of the California Route 66 Preservation Foundation.
“Knowing the new owner and his plans for Amboy brings a smile to our faces and joy to our hearts,” said Conkle. “We in the preservation field and all ‘roadies’ … from around the world, support and offer assistance to anyone that stands up for what we believe in.”