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‘It’s desert?’ Investors surprised by West Texas land buy

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DELL CITY, Texas — Maxine Bryant received an ad in her mailbox last year for undeveloped land in West Texas and bought, sight unseen, 20 acres of sorry-looking desert in the middle of nowhere.
    The Florida woman said the real estate company, Florida Top Land, told her that a Home Depot was coming to the nearby town of Dell City and that the airport — if that’s what you can call a gravel strip along a farm field — would soon be improved.
    She said she was led to believe, like some of the 200 or so other customers who bought the company’s pitch and paid $15,000 to $20,000 for a 20-acre lot, that this was a place where ‘‘things are happening.’’
    But if things are happening around Dell City, it’s news to locals. And clearly, some of the buyers didn’t look very closely at a map before signing on the dotted line.
    ‘‘It’s desert? What we bought is desert?’’ said new landowner Robert Brown of Hollywood, Fla. ‘‘It’s not wetland?’’
    Florida Top Land has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and none of the customers interviewed for this story are threatening to sue. Florida Top Land president and chief executive Dennis Grant denied misleading anyone.
    ‘‘Twenty years from now, which is not a long time, people are going to be building all over the place,’’ he said. ‘‘So people might say there’s an area where there is nothing right now, just like Florida. When people saw what happened in Florida and other parts of the country ... they saw something that can change, and I know this will change, too.’’
    The land is a few miles outside Dell City, a spot along the Texas-New Mexico line that has 400 residents, no grocery store, no bank, no doctor’s office. Farmers grow wheat from the hardscrabble earth. A mineral-rich reservoir irrigates the fields, but it’s generally not suitable for drinking. Drinking water is available only by well, and electrical service is spotty.
    Outside of town, a welcome sign touting Dell City as ‘‘The Valley of Hidden Waters’’ is surrounded by flat, empty land, big sky, and a two-lane road, straight as a shotgun blast, that recedes to the horizon. A street sign, marking the intersection of a nonexistent Keen Ave. and Overton Rd., stands forlornly amid scrubby vegetation and sand marked by tire tracks.
    Many modern conveniences are close to 100 miles away, with no gas station in between.
    No one seems to have any plans to civilize the area, either.
    Don Harrison, a Home Depot spokesman in Atlanta, said no mega hardware store is coming to Dell City, whose entire population could fit inside one. And no improvements are planned at the Dell City ‘‘airport,’’ which does not even have a terminal building.
    Grant, the real estate company president, acknowledges as much and is advertising the land as an investment today that will help the buyer ‘‘retire wealthy tomorrow.’’
    He said that anything customers were told about a Home Depot and airport improvements had to do with El Paso, which is nearly 100 miles away and is anticipating a mini-boom from a planned expansion at Fort Bliss.
    He also said he tells customers about reported plans for a private spaceport being built by founder Jeff Bezos about 90 miles from Dell City.
    Bryant, a 43-year-old clinical researcher in Hollywood, Fla., said she never planned to live on her 20-acre spread, and bought it as an investment. Still, she said she was surprised to hear a description of the town from a reporter.
    ‘‘So I’ll be holding on to that land for a long, long time,’’ a bemused-sounding Bryant said.
    Grant, who runs a church ministry and sells mostly to fellow Jamaican immigrants, said he is confident buyers are pleased, and he offers post-purchase trips to check out the land. He said if any customers change their minds after seeing the land, he will buy the property back.
    Other investors said they are not worried. After all, they reasoned, the value of their holdings is bound to rise as open land becomes scarce, much the way it has in Florida.
    ‘‘That’s why we bought, the potential that years from know it may be worth something,’’ said Valda Phillips, a 50-year-old nurse from Florida. ‘‘I know that it won’t be valuable right now. That doesn’t bother me.’’
    Judith Ricketts was relieved it wasn’t a swamp.
    ‘‘I went there and I don’t mind,’’ said Ricketts, a South Florida college administrator. ‘‘As a matter of fact, I heard (from friends) that it was swamp land, so I was pleasantly surprised. I really just bought it now just for keeps. I have some plans in mind for the property.’’
    The land sales have some folks in Dell City scratching their heads.
    Betty Carol Perry, who runs the hardware store with her husband, Leroy Wayne, said the small town doesn’t have much to offer.
    ‘‘We’ve seen a bank come and go,’’ Perry said. ‘‘We’ve seen a lot of people come in and then leave.’’
    Juanita Collier, the Dell City administrator and justice of the peace, said she has seen countless speculators buy property in the area and sell it to unsuspecting outsiders.
    ‘‘We have lots of problems with this,’’ Collier said of sight-unseen land purchases. ‘‘They don’t have any idea what they are buying.’’
    Collier said she has not received any complaints about Grant’s land sales. But she warned anyone who buys land in remote parts of West Texas to first figure out if utility lines and water are available.
    ‘‘You might could have water,’’ she said, ‘‘and you might not.’’
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