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Long-stalled Oxnard Wagon Wheel Project Starts Down New Path

An iconic freeway landmark in Oxnard turned a long-awaited corner Wednesday.

The $450 million, 63-acre remake of the former Wagon Wheel Motel and Restaurant area launched with the first symbolic shovels of dirt.

For years, the empty site has been an enchanting eyesore off Highway 101, where successive plagues of fires, rats and rubble played out under the dormant neon stagecoach sign that has served as a gateway to the city.

On Wednesday, Forrest Lucas, whose Corona-based Lucas Oil Products Inc. provided financial backing for what’s now the Wagon Wheel Village at Oxnard project, told a crowd of 200 or so that he was probably one of the few people present who had stayed at the old hotel.

“I drove past that thing a million times,” he said of his former days as a long-haul truck driver. “I never dreamed of owning something around here.”

His automotive oil products company since has become so big that the Indianapolis Colts’ NFL stadium bears his name. He owns a raceway there and sponsors off-road racing teams.

But real estate development isn’t one of his typical interests. He got involved in the Oxnard project through his equal partner in the venture, developer Carl Renezeder.

“I’m not a developer,” Lucas said before the groundbreaking. “It’s not like I came to Ventura County looking for land.”

Lucas and Renezeder bought the property, which stretches between Oxnard Boulevard, Ventura Road and railroad tracks on the south side of the freeway, in June 2010 after former plans for the site petered out. Renezeder, who also races trucks sponsored by Lucas, has been the hands-on presence pushing the project past numerous obstacles. The project calls for 1,500 residential units, more than 50,000 square feet of commercial space and seven acres of parks and open space.

Wednesday’s event marked the launch of the first phase: a 120-unit affordable housing complex. The apartments, expected to be finished next year, will allow for demolition of the Wagon Wheel Trailer Lodge, a mobile home park where 100 or so families have been living in limbo since learning in 2004 that the park would be closed. Those families have first dibs on the rental units.

The attorney who has represented most of the residents for nearly 10 years, Barbara Macri-Ortiz, told a luncheon crowd it was an exciting day but acknowledged the difficult transition ahead.

“It’s a completely different style of living,” she said of the move to apartments.

The affordable complex will be managed by Cabrillo Economic Development Corp.

“They will help our folks adjust,” she said of the entity, which has years of experience managing farmworker and other low-income housing projects.

Resident Enedina Rivera also addressed the crowd, offering widespread thanks.

“It’s very hard to move,” she said, after having lived in the trailer park for 35 years. “Thank you to everybody for helping us.”

Mayor Tim Flynn said the project proves “you don’t have to consume prime ag land” to develop.

He commented on the site’s long local history, calling original developer Martin V. “Bud” Smith a visionary whose ranch-style theme branded Oxnard from the freeway.

“Now, this is the shining star, in many ways, of the city,” Flynn said.

The neon sign eventually will come down from its roadside perch. But it will be refurbished and remain on site as part of a future transit center along with many other historic Wagon Wheel items, Renezeder said.

Ideally, the sign one day will light up again.

“That would be the plan,” Renezeder said, “to commemorate the history.”

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