Town of Kingman, Ariz., fighting back and shaping its image

KINGMAN, Ariz. – Red-headed Brittney Wanner and her younger sister, Brandi, stood in the bright morning sunlight along old Route 66 and looked toward the sky.

They had a job to do.

Every morning, the pair raise the U.S. and state flags outside the family’s downtown used car business in this historic blue-collar town, which once served as a wayside stop along John Steinbeck’s so-called Mother Road.

On this summer morning, the ritual took on added solemnity. U.S. Sen. John McCain had just died, and the women worked together to set the two flags at half-staff. Brittney, 30, a mother of three, bit her lip. She wants to get things right.

“I think it needs to go higher,” she told her 22-year-old sister, a mother of one.

The two stand at a crossroads between the past and the future in this high-desert community of 30,000 residents, a number that doubles if you count adjacent developments such as Golden Valley, a suburban sprawl of mobile homes that sits just north of town over Coyote Pass near Castle Rock.

Many their age would have already fled what they might have considered mind-numbing isolation and small-town blues in a place that continues to battle its share of social ills, both homegrown and whisked in by the passing Interstate 40.

But the sisters are staying.

Their family owns the local newspaper as well as several other businesses, and their father, Matt Wanner, is president of the downtown merchants association. They want their own children to grow up in Kingman and hope their grandchildren do as well.

“We would have moved away, but our family has created something here,” said Brittney Wanner, wiping a wisp of hair out of her eye. “We’re stepping into their shoes.”

For most Las Vegans, Kingman isn’t much more than a pit stop, a place to fill up the gas tank on a trip to Phoenix or the Grand Canyon. It’s also been the place spoofed over the summer by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

“Kingman has always been a stop-off town for gas and bathroom runs. It’s nobody’s fault, but that’s the way it is,” Matt Wanner said.

‘Great little town’

But many people here believe there’s a lot to stick around for, including a slower pace of life, which includes nearby off-roading and scenic desert hiking trails that start just a few blocks from downtown.

A burgeoning downtown revitalization effort includes a “Welcome to Kingman” archway on central Beale Street, where a yoga studio, the Rickety Cricket Brewing microbrewery and hipster coffeehouse offset the pawn shop and motorcycle parts joint, a mix aimed at attracting more tourists to a downtown already full of historic buildings.

Asked whether the new Interstate 11 expansion, offering a quicker route from Southern Nevada, will boost Kingman’s fortunes, Matt Wanner replies that he doesn’t think so.

“I-11 will make it quicker to get here from Las Vegas, but it won’t give people a reason to stay,” he said. “We’re not that town yet.”

What will help, he said, is downtown renovation designed to give tourists a reason to stick around and contribute to the economy.

The town features a mix of newcomers — the residents who fled big-city crime and crowds in favor of what Mayor Monica Gates calls its “livability” — and the folks who’ve been here all their lives.

Its sense of sociability includes book-reading and astronomy clubs, quilting and knitting groups and a burgeoning arts and theater scene.

“It’s a great little town. We’ve got parks. We’ve got recreation and a lot of activities in this town,” said Jack Alexander, owner of Thunder-Rode Motorcycle Accessories.

The crossroads community also draws a steady stream of tourists.

“We get people from all over the world in our shop every day,” said Alexander, who fled the snow and ice of Idaho for the high desert about five years ago.

Kingman is also the kind of place where a homeless man can become a minor celebrity. In recent months, residents have donated nearly $3,000 to buy a new keyboard for a legally blind British musician known as “Santa Claus” because of his red holiday hat. Local police often stop to offer James Zyla a bottle of water on a hot day, and someone recently gave him a cellphone.

“We don’t have the highest wages in the country, but when people need help, the dollars flow,” said Shawn Byrne, editor of the Kingman Daily Miner newspaper.

When a 4-year-old boy from a destitute family was killed in a traffic mishap, he said, residents donated $10,000 to pay for the funeral.

“That impressed me,” Byrne said.

Artist and teacher Carol Rose and her husband moved here 18 years ago from Los Angeles, settling on Kingman after a lengthy search that allowed them to trade six lanes of rush-hour traffic for a breezy two-lane highway.

“We wanted to see the sun, and we have a sense of community,” said Rose, now 74. “For nearly all my life, I’ve been a big-city girl, but I’ve always had a country heart.”

Even though her husband died a few years back, Rose isn’t leaving.

“I’ve come to love Kingman,” she said. “The air is clean; the people are wonderful. It always feels that you can take a deep breath of fresh air and relax. The desert isn’t just dead space.”

Beneath the surface

But no small town is completely tranquil, including Kingman.

Methamphetamine sales continue to plague law enforcement officials, who acknowledge that Kingman sits along a drug pipeline between Mexico and big cities such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas. On most days, the paper details drug busts that collar users and sellers from 18 to 80.

“A lot of meth originating from Southern California heading to eastern destinations passes through Kingman. Drug dealers and organizations will do what they can to move product along their route to their final destination,” said a sergeant from the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office narcotics squad, who did not want his name used because he is involved in numerous sensitive operations. “I have seen meth affect young teenagers who use it and sell it to seniors who are 80-plus years old.”

Some criticize a lack of youth programs. A Teen Outlet center on Beale Street sits mostly unused, with only Friday night hours and a sign out front that reads: “No e-cigarettes, vapes or outside drinks.”

Police Chief Robert DeVries said the number of drug arrests has risen 41 percent over the past five years.

“We have struggled with meth and opioids but also have a very strong coalition in place doing what they can with very few resources,” he said.

Kingman was founded in 1882, when the area was still part of the Arizona Territory, as a simple railroad stop along the newly constructed route of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. The new town was named after Lewis Kingman, who had surveyed the rail line’s right-of-way between Needles, California, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Over the generations, Kingman has had brushes with fame, some good, some not.

Scenes from the cult films “Mars Attacks” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” were filmed here. Also, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were married here during a break from the shooting of “Gone with the Wind.”

One main street, Andy Devine Avenue, is named after the raspy-voiced Hollywood western character actor who grew up here. Kingman still holds its annual Andy Devine Days.

But Kingman also has some darker connections to popular culture. Timothy McVeigh briefly lived here prior to detonating a mammoth truck bomb outside the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 in an act of terrorism that killed 168 people and injured 680. Co-conspirator Michael Fortier also lived in Kingman from the age of 7.

For months after the bombings, reporters converged on Kingman, labeling the town McVeigh’s birthplace, even though many here still remind visitors that the bomber was merely a “couch-surfing transient.”

“We took a black eye from Timothy McVeigh,” Matt Wanner said. “But he only lived here a few months. He was pretty much passing through.”

Twenty-one years later, another bomber with a Kingman connection would make news.

On July 13, 2016, Kingman resident Glenn Franklin Jones drove a rental car packed with two homemade bombs to rural Panaca, Nevada. That evening, the unemployed former nurse lit fuses on the bombs and shot himself in the head outside the home of Joshua Cluff, a friend and former co-worker.

The explosions destroyed the house and the rental car and rained shrapnel and debris on the town 165 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Cluff’s wife and daughters escaped. Jones was the sole casualty. Investigators later recovered bomb-making materials from Jones’ RV and storage unit at a Kingman trailer park.

More than two years later, the case is still under investigation by Nevada state investigators.

Show tarnishes town

Last summer, Kingman took another blow when it became a target for Cohen, who featured the town on his cable television program “Who is America,” posing as a developer at a meeting and announcing plans to build the world’s largest mosque in the community.

During a town meeting the producers say was filmed in Kingman, residents pushed back against the mosque. One man declares that the project is not welcome in a town that is “lucky to have black people in it.” Another says that the small percentage of African-American residents aren’t welcome, “but we tolerate them.”

After the show aired, Kingman’s tourism office received numerous letters, emails and comments on its Facebook page from people calling the town racist.

“We got one letter from a tourist saying he wanted the Route 66 experience but that he wasn’t going to stop in Kingman because it was racist,” said Josh Noble, the town’s tourism services manager. “People have gotten the idea in their mind that this is what the community is like.”

Kingman is fighting back.

The town released a statement in light of the show declaring that “shrugging this off is not going to be us,” citing a new emphasis on diversity in Kingman, which is 90 percent white. “And while we’ve been making progress,” the release added, “the comments in the show, fairly or unfairly, show that we still have more work to do.”

The mayor held a community gathering in August to announce plans to create an annual event to celebrate the town’s diversity and showcase different cultures, religions and ethnicities.

Making strides

In an interview, Gates said Kingman needs to take control of its public image and not leave it to outsiders.

“After the McVeigh thing, the community never addressed who he was or what Kingman was,” she said. “And we’ve vowed never to make that mistake again. We see this incident as an opportunity to establish who we are.”

Members of the Masjid-i-Ibrahim mosque here say the town has already taken great strides to make Muslims feel welcome.

“I’ve been in Kingman since 2005, and I haven’t seen any racism,” said imam Umar Farooq Mahmood, who oversees about 25 families that worship at the mosque.

After Muslim-related violence makes international headlines, he said, residents will send flowers, cards and letters “that say, ‘You’re welcome here,’ that they know what happened there isn’t here.”

A few years ago, he added, during a small anti-Muslim protest nearby, the mosque served pizza at a table outside and quickly drew a large crowd of supporters who dwarfed the picketers. Said Mahmood: “We outnumbered them.”

He called Kingman a peaceful town. “Nice people here, friendly people here,” Mahmood said.

Mary Gardner, who works at the Beale Street Brews coffee shop, has lived in Kingman her entire life.

“It’s definitely home. … The residents all try to stay tight-knit, and I like that,” the 25-year-old said. “I’ve thought about it, but I don’t think I could ever bring myself to leave home.”

If you look around, Matt Wanner said, you’ll find a lot of good people in Kingman, a place he too is happy to call home.

“I probably couldn’t make much of a difference on what goes on in a place like Las Vegas,” he said. “In Kingman, I can make a difference.”

John M. Glionna is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer.

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