KINGMAN, Ariz. -- A busted economy and a tough mortgage market have obliterated the notion that opening the new Colorado River bridge extending south from Nevada could ignite a development boom in northwest Arizona anytime soon.
Las Vegas developers Jim Rhodes and Leonard Mardian purchased thousands of acres of land near White Hills more than five years ago, believing a speedier trip across the new O'Callaghan-Tillman Bridge, as opposed to the delay-ridden Hoover Dam, would make their properties viable as bedroom communities to Southern Nevada.
Their grandiose dreams of master-planned communities and thousands of home sales were idled first by a two-year delay in construction of the dam bypass bridge, caused by a crane system collapse.
Then came the nation's worst recession since the Great Depression, which included record unemployment and a drop in home values that created a foreclosure crisis and a housing glut in Southern Nevada. It's a recession from which the nation is just starting to recover.
But the Oct. 19 opening of the bridge already is sparking more business and more interest in real estate along U.S. Highway 93 between Las Vegas and Kingman.
"Sales are picking up," said Ralph McGrath, a Scottsdale businessman who owns three sections of land in White Hills, about 30 miles south of the new bridge. "We've already had a big upswing. We've sold several properties."
McGrath said people can finally live in Arizona and commute to jobs in the Las Vegas area knowing that the bridge provides newfound transportation consistency.
Traffic delays at Hoover Dam made it impossible for motorists to calculate travel times to reach their destinations, he said.
The relative certainty of a 45-minute trip to White Hills makes property in the area more suitable for those who would live in Arizona and commute to work in Nevada, McGrath said.
"I think there's going to be a good deal of growth," he said.
McGrath's real estate agent and nephew Dennis McGrath said they look forward to marketing 5-acre parcels in their Equestrian Estates subdivision early next year. They believe the development will offer a crime-free, rural lifestyle appealing to retirees and working people alike.
The McGraths said their clients will have affordable land, space, and peace and quiet, while enjoying reasonable access to nearby Lake Mead and the shopping, gaming and entertainment amenities offered in Las Vegas.
Grand Canyon West interim CEO Robert Bravo said the Hualapai Indian Tribe also expects more business at its tourism destination that pulls heavily from the Las Vegas market. Shortened and predictable travel times allow visitors to spend more time at the attraction and the Sky Walk over a part of the Grand Canyon, or return to Las Vegas more quickly, a win-win for both destinations.
"This allows additional time for them at Grand Canyon West to enjoy more of the activities that we have," Bravo said. "And the properties in Las Vegas want their guests back in a timely manner."
Bravo said Grand Canyon West business has been tracking 20 percent ahead of last year's pace, and he anticipates 30 percent more growth because of the new bridge.
Commercial truck traffic prohibited across Hoover Dam and rerouted since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has quickly returned to the U.S. 93 corridor, where a handful of businesses on the highway have been suffering.
"Our trucking business that we lost nine years ago is finally coming back," said Brad Larsen, the son of the owner of Rosie's Den.
He said the loss of commercial truck traffic combined with a lousy economy and the inconvenience of highway construction the past two years nearly put out of business the cafe and bar operation 28 miles south of the new bridge.
"We almost closed our doors, and now our business has virtually doubled from where it was a year ago," Larsen said, two weeks after the bridge opened. "Last weekend it was wall-to-wall people. It was very good and I just hope it continues."
Russ Mann, the developer of Last Stop, a cluster of commercial services on the other side of the highway just north of Rosie's, said the thoroughfare is much busier since the new bridge started welcoming motorists.
"The traffic has increased, I would say, by probably 30 percent right out of the gate," Mann said.
Mann said customers crossing the 1,900-foot span some 900 feet above the river are in awe. He said the structure gets rave reviews.
"Phenomenal. People love the bridge,'' he said. "They think it's spectacular."
The trucking industry is saving drive time and fuel costs by a direct trip across the new bridge.
Commercial rigs had been diverted away from Hoover Dam since 2001, and the detour through Bullhead City, Ariz., and Laughlin and Searchlight to Boulder City added 23 miles to the trip into Las Vegas.
The Federal Highway Administration estimated that an average of 2,100 semitrailers were detoured each day, adding an extra $30 million to the cost of commercial transport between Arizona and Las Vegas.
Those efficiencies should make a big difference for many, including JM Eagle, a pipe manufacturer at the Kingman Airport Industrial Park, about 75 miles from the bridge. Traffic Manager Alex McAfee said JM Eagle generally dispatches five to 10 trucks of pipe products per day to or through Las Vegas.
Shaving time, miles and fuel cost adds up to $30,000 in annual savings for his company, according to McAfee. He said dozens of other Kingman-area businesses should enjoy similar benefits.
Businesses along U.S. 93 are already making plans for new investments and better accommodating the returning truck traffic.
"I have to tear the fence out now to make more room for truck parking at Rosie's," Larsen said.
Mann said Last Stop plans to pave about 15 acres for improved truck parking and install more fuel pumps.
Peter Cimino said he is making plans to provide space for big rigs to stop at the business he owns on the highway five miles north of Kingman.
He said the Castle Rock Bar and Grill plans additional development to take advantage of the uptick in traffic.
White Hills resident Rick White said stimulated business and real estate activity have turned his contracting businesses around. After struggling for a couple of years, he said he has taken several new jobs in recent weeks, including septic installation and a homebuilding project.
"It's unbelievable," White said. "Everything's looking so wonderful now."