The parallels are almost eerie. A world-famous singing sensation, known for his distinctive dance moves, glittery wardrobe and bizarre behavior, dies of heart failure amidst a pile of prescription drugs. Fans line up outside the gates of his estate—waiting to pay their respects to the King. It’s Michael Jackson we’re talking about though, not Elvis. But there is still plenty of speculation that Jackson’s famous home—Neverland Ranch—could become a tourist attraction ala Presley’s Graceland.
For days rumors swirled that his family was considering a public viewing of Jackson’s body at Neverland, a 2,800 acre spread, located 33 miles northeast of Santa Barbara, Calif. News crews booked hotel rooms. AT&T and Verizon were allegedly moving in emergency cell phone antennas. The appearance of a cement truck at the ranch on June 30 had readers of celebrity gossip site TMZ.com speculating there may even be a crypt under construction.
The man who controls the ranch, real estate investor Thomas Barrack, is mum about the long term plans. Barrack’s Colony Capital bought the $22 million mortgage on the property just before it went up for auction last year. It’s now owned in a joint venture with Jackson’s estate, says Barrack spokesperson Joanne Lessner. She released an effusively worded letter from Barrack to local residents on June 30. Citing pioneering California missionary Junipero Serra, Jackson’s 2005 acquittal on child molestation charges and “a Western tradition of kindness and hospitality,” Barrack asks his neighbors to bear with the public onslaught and let the world take in the “magic elixir” of the Santa Ynez Valley.
Locals say it is highly unlikely Barrack or the Jackson family could get permission to build a Graceland-like tourist attraction at the site, however. Local real estate broker and long time area resident William Etling recently blogged about the issues that might prohibit such a development. The ranch, he notes, is zoned for agricultural not commercial use. After talking with a local mortician, Etling says it is unlikely that Jackson’s body could legally be buried on the property.
Then there is the issue of the community support. Last year voters in Santa Barbara County shot down a candidate for supervisor who was seen as pro-hotel development. Locals, including celebrity residents such as Bo Derek and David Crosby, have vigorously opposed expansion plans by the local Chumash Indian casino. Lately locals have taken to calling the ranch Never!-land.
As a real estate broker, Etling would seemingly have an interest in seeing more development of the bucolic region, which saw a surge in tourism five years ago after the movie Sideways was filmed there. But Etling says the largely wealthy area residents have no interest in opening more of their valley to John Q. Public. “It would depreciate our property to have that carnival,” he says. “It’s not that type of place. It’s very stable. There’s not a lot of mobility.”
Jackson’s ranch is located about five miles north of the tiny wine country hamlet of Los Olivos. It’s one of the most beautiful spots in the country, blessed with rolling hills, vineyards and cool, damp air from the nearby ocean.
It is a part of the world Barrack knows well. He’s owned a ranch and vineyard near Neverland for three decades. Last year he reached a settlement with neighbors that allowed him to open his Happy Canyon Winery to wine salespeople and critics but not for public wine tastings, which locals had opposed.
Retired venture capitalist Bob Field, who says his own property overlooks Barrack’s vineyard, has another suggestion for his neighbor—dismantle Neverland and take it piece by piece to Las Vegas, where Barrack’s company owns the Las Vegas Hilton and an interest in Station Casinos—a string of gambling joints aimed at local residents. “This is a small valley,” Field says. “We don’t have the roads, hospitals or airport. It will take him multiple years to develop anything here. It would cost him a fraction of that in Las Vegas. The day it opened, there would be many times the visitors.”
If a Neverland museum doesn’t get developed in Vegas or Los Olivos there are other cities that might welcome it. The mayor of Jackson’s hometown of Gary, Indiana is practically begging to have the star’s remains find a permanent home there.
BusinessWeek editors Chris Palmeri, Prashant Gopal and Peter Coy chronicle the highs and lows of the housing and mortgage markets on their Hot Property blog. In print and online, the Hot Property team first wrote about the potential downside of lenders pushing riskier, "option ARM" mortgages and the rise in mortgage fraud back in 2005—well ahead of many other media outlets. In 2008, Hot Property bloggers finished #1 in a ranking of the world's top 100 "most powerful property people" by the British real estate website Global edge. Hot Property was named among the 25 most influential real estate blogs of 2007 by Inman News.