The proposed site for the Quay Valley development is right on the edge of Kern and Kings counties near Interstate 5. Ezra David Romero/KQED
The proposed site for the Quay Valley development is right on the edge of Kern and Kings counties near Interstate 5. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

Is Rural Kings County Ready for a High-Tech Town?

Is Rural Kings County Ready for a High-Tech Town?

Kings County is known for farmed products like cotton and milk, as well as prisons and the Naval Air Station in Lemoore. Now, a Southern California group wants to build a brand-new high-tech town in this agricultural county.

Many people who visit the rural county don’t even realize they’re there. That’s because they’re zooming by along Interstate 5.

Halfway along the drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco, a tiny oasis appears. It’s here that drivers like Rob Parker, from Vancouver, stop to stretch their legs.

"Our 2-year-old boy was bouncing off the walls inside of our motor home and I looked out the window and I saw a sign for Kettleman City,” Parker says.

The Parkers ended up at a western-themed strip mall called Bravo Farms. Michelle Magallan, the manager, is scooping ice cream for a customer.

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"You get people from out of state, out of the country," Magallan says. "You’re in the middle of nowhere."

Magallan says she’s heard rumors of a state-of-the-art city in the works about 8 miles south of here on I-5 called Quay Valley.

Kettleman City is one of the largest rest stops on Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Kettleman City is one of the largest rest stops on Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

At the moment this proposed town is nothing but 7,500 acres of desert. But Southern California real estate developer and entrepreneur Quay Hays wants to change that. His company, GROW Holdings, develops green projects. But this is Hays' first foray into creating a new town. He's worked in marketing, book publishing, finance and the film industry. It’s sort of a legacy project for him.

"My name’s on the door,” Hays says. “I gotta make sure it turns out OK.”

The proposed town calls for multiple mixed-use village centers with stores, parks, restaurants, a mall and a college with a focus on sustainability.

"You’ll go under an underpass and what you’ll see to the right we would have a very large entertainment destination," says Hays. "On the left we would have some very unique themed resort hotels and then you go into the community itself."

In 2007 a slump in the economy and a lawsuit over water halted Hays' initial plan to build Quay Valley. Now the project is back on the table. He says it will create professional careers as well as retail jobs. Hays also says the future city of 75,000 people will feature houses and apartments run on solar energy, a graywater system and a futuristic transportation system called a Hyperloop, first imagined by Elon Musk.

“After the initial testing of moving humans, it could be an intermodal transportation system within Quay Valley,” Hays adds.

GROW Holdings is paying for all the plans, permitting, land and water acquisitions. Development funds will come from private capital and buyers. But for this city to become a reality, the company’s plans will have to get past the Kings County Planning Division, led by Greg Gatzka.

“I’m very excited about this process, but to build an entire new community when there’s nothing that exists there is very comprehensive in terms of everything that would be necessary to actually support that,” says Gatzka.

A draft land use plan for the Quay Valley project.
A draft land use plan for the Quay Valley project. (Courtesy GROW Holdings)

Gatzka’s staff is working with Hays on the very early stages of planning. He says there are a number of looming questions yet to be answered. His biggest concern is that lack of water could halt the project.

“Where is the water going to come from and how are they going to provide it in a sustainable manner?" Gatkza asks.

When finished, the town is supposed to use around 12,000 acre-feet of water a year. Some of that water will come from water rights Hays purchased for the initial phase, but he isn’t sure where the rest will come from. UC Davis environmental design professor Stephen Wheeler questions whether this project is even sustainable.

"I am pretty skeptical,” says Wheeler. “If we were really thinking about investing $5 billion or whatever it’s going to be, it would be way more sustainable to invest it in some existing city."

He would rather see that money used in communities with infrastructure already in place. Cal State Fresno urban planning professor Hongwei Dong agrees.

“It’s supposed to be self-sustained, but on the other hand I assume they are going to rely on people from off-site to go shopping there, to go there for entertainment,” Dong adds.

He says all those people traveling to Quay Valley could actually increase pollution in the area. An environmental review will also need to take place as part of the approval process.

Back in Kettleman City, people who live in the area, like Michelle Magallan, think a high-tech town could boost the economy in Kings County.

Would she live in Quay Valley?

"I probably would. It’d probably keep me healthier and living longer. Why not?"

But it will be at least a couple of years before Magallan could even consider buying a house in Quay Valley. Developers would like the first set of homes and attractions ready to live in and shop in by 2019.