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Meet the Kidco children who purchased the town of Gorda

Kidco's young executives show off the flag of Gorda. Bette, 12, NeNe, 11, Dickie, 14 and June Cessna, 16 bought the Big Sur coast town.
Kidco's young executives show off the flag of Gorda. Bette, 12, NeNe, 11, Dickie, 14 and June Cessna, 16 bought the Big Sur coast town. Telegram-Tribune

Torrents of rain have pounded iconic Highway 1, causing mudslides and bending the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge like putty.

Residents along the scenic coast have been cut off by the damage, though not for the first time.

At one time, the tiny town of Gorda was owned by children. Their company, Kidco, bought Gorda after Warner Bros. paid them $500,000 for their life story and made the film “Kidco” about them.

But economic disaster struck when a section of Highway 1 was erased by a massive mudslide in 1983. Tourism slowed to a crawl for 15 months, when the highway ended in a pair of isolated cul-de-sacs. Lawrence Anderson, who had sold Gorda to Kidco, repossessed the town by 1984 and put it up for sale again.

An Associated Press story from September of that year said, “There are only four communities along California’s Big Sur coastline, and this one’s for sale.”

It was Gorda, clinging to the mountainside with a general store, jade shop, restaurant, seven homes and a service station known for selling the most expensive gas in the United States. The foreclosed town sold in 1993 to Sherwin and Mary Miller.

Who was Kidco? Steven Churm explains in a story for the June 6, 1979, Telegram-Tribune:

Little Gorda goes to the kids

Bill Gomez wasn’t impressed Tuesday by the army of journalists who invaded this tiny seaside hamlet 70 miles north of San Luis Obispo.

He talked of the change their arsenal of cameras, microphones, pads and pencils would bring to the once-peaceful town tucked in the lap of the towering Santa Lucia Mountains.

Propped against one of the town’s three gas pumps, Gomez stroked his chest-length beard and sipped Budweiser as he talked of the town’s uncertain future.

“If this brings positive, honest change, we’ll accept it. But no lies. No rip-offs. That’s what I left behind. That’s why I came here,” Gomez warned.

Gomez, like most of Gorda’s 20-plus residents who huddled in small clusters under overcast skies, watched with mixed emotions as the town’s new owners — four enterprising San Diego youngsters — sponsored a townwarming party.

If this brings positive, honest change, we’ll accept it. But no lies. No rip-offs. That’s what I left behind. That’s why I came here.

Bill Gomez, Gorda resident

Most of the partygoers Tuesday morning were reporters who had come to record the latest chapter in the fairy tale of Kidco Ltd. Ventures.

Kidco, the San Diego-based firm promoted as the nation’s only corporation run exclusively by minors, recently bought the 21-acre town for a reported $580,000.

The landmark and way station for Big Sur travelers along Highway 1 belongs to Kidco’s four stockholders. They are the Cessna family kids — Dickie, 14; Bette, 13; June, 15; and NeNe, 11.

On cue, the four youngsters, perched on a splintered redwood railing in front of the town’s lone cafe, Sorta Gorda, smiled and chatted with more than 60 reporters and photographers who reached this outpost by car and helicopter.

For more than 40 minutes, the kids guided a tour of the town’s buildings — a clapboard general store, gas station, five bungalows and two apartments.

They told writers from People magazine and The Washington Post about their unlikely rise from neighborhood pranksters to wealthy entrepreneurs.

Kidco’s business empire had modest enough roots. Starting as a corporation in 1976, its owners hauled cans and trash from the planned community of San Diego Country Estates, where Richard Cessna, their father, runs the equestrian center.

A year later, the kids branched out.

They sold manure as fertilizer, did cleanup jobs for a local developer and killed an occasional gopher for their neighbors near Ramona.

Success brought nationwide attention — and the state Board of Equalization, which demanded the firm pay back taxes on the manure sold.

Kidco battled the Sacramento bureaucrats and won. They didn’t have to pay any back taxes.

Since then, a Kidco T-shirt business and a patented gopher trap has fattened the firm’s bank account and created the delightful dilemma of locating a tax shelter.

Gorda fit the bill.

To Hollywood movie moguls at Warner Bros., it was a perfect ending to a perfect story fit for widescreens everywhere.

Kidco signed a movie contract a year ago, then bought the Big Sur town with the Spanish surname that means fat lady, Dickie told reporters.

What the 14-year-old Kidco president wouldn’t discuss Tuesday was the stormy series of events surrounding the town’s sale that ended in March with a costly out-of-court settlement.

Trouble touched this retreat last July when Richard Cessna showed up to take control of the town’s business with the blessing of then-Gorda owner Larry Anderson.

Anderson, a Los Angeles contractor who bought the lonely 9-acre site 18 years ago, had grown tired of the long commute between Gorda and his Hollywood home and wanted to sell out. Upkeep and operations of the three-business hamlet had become a burden for Anderson and his wife.

Two years ago, Anderson put Gorda up for sale. The asking price: $950,000.

A real estate flier read: “We proudly present Gorda, overlooking the blue Pacific. It is an entire town, self-supporting and brimming with charm and dollar potential.”

That dollar potential intrigued Cessna, whom Anderson allowed to manage Gorda’s businesses last summer, although final details of the sale were unfinished.

Several Gorda residents said Tuesday that soon after Cessna took control, employee payroll checks bounced, even though more than enough to cover them had been deposited from business revenues.

Suddenly, they say, the businesses were operating in the red at the busiest time of the year, August and September.

One Gorda restaurant worker showed the Telegram-Tribune two payroll checks that had bounced despite “more than $5,000 the place grossed last summer. Seems funny, doesn’t it?”

Gorda employees claimed they did not receive Kidco W-2 tax forms this year until after the deadline for filing income tax returns — and that the forms were wrong.

Troubled by Cessna’s actions, Anderson reasserted his control of Gorda in mid-October. He claimed, in documents filed in Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas, that Kidco failed to live up to the terms of its escrow agreement. Anderson told Cessna the deal was off.

Kidco then filed a lawsuit against the Andersons to force them to make the sale.

Anderson, in turn, filed a cross complaint charging Cessna with diverting $119,000 from three Gorda businesses between July 23 and Oct. 13.

Cessna refused Tuesday to talk about details of the sale or allegations by some Gordans of wrongdoing.

“We settled out of court for $80,000 in March, clearing the way for the sale,” Cessna said. “That’s all I’ll say. This is Kidco’s day.”

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

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