This millennial spent nearly $2 million to turn a ghost town into a luxury travel destination


The purchase of the town of Cerro Gordo in California included more than 300 acres of land, 22 buildings and, according to legend, three ghosts.

When Brent Underwood bought Cerro Gordo in 2018, he was told the property included a few ghoulish guests. One was the town’s former brothel owner, another died in a card game gone wrong and the third still remains a mystery.

It was stories like these that originally made Underwood, a 31-year-old owner of a hostel, fall in love with the California ghost town. Now he plans to package the town’s history as an adventure that people from all over the world will travel to experience.

The thin, bumpy dirt road leading to Cerro Gordo, located in California’s Inyo Mountains, is eight miles long and takes nearly 45 minutes to navigate. The town is just over 200 miles north of Los Angeles and resembles a 300-acre playground for Wild West reenactments.

Except Underwood has a different vision: He wants to turn Cerro Gordo into a luxury travel destination. To make it happen, he and his business partner, Jon Bier, purchased the place for $1.4 million in 2018 with help from an eclectic group of investors, ranging from Netflix and Hulu executives to a UFC fighter. They bought the town with plans to spend an additional $1 million on construction and repairs.

Over $400,000 in renovations later, however, and the pair are now realizing why so many dreamers before them have failed to turn the town into a sustainable business.

It currently costs about $10,000 a month to run, including loan payments, utilities, satellite Wi-Fi and payroll.

The closest city, Lone Pine, is nearly 50 miles away, making even routine purchases an inconvenience. Only three of the 22 buildings have running water, sourced from a 2,500 gallon water tank. All of it has to be trucked from a town about an hour away. Replacing the broken water pump under the town would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and skyrocket their budget.

While restoring the town has its challenges, Underwood isn’t new to the real estate business. The Columbia graduate lived in and operated a small backpacking hostel in New York City after an abrupt career change, and he currently lives in Austin, Texas, where he operates HK Austin, a popular 19th-century Victorian mansion-turned-hostel.

That project led Underwood and Bier to think bigger — and to Cerro Gordo.

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The town’s name is Spanish for “Fat Hill” and was coined by the Mexican miners who first found silver there in 1865. The town quickly grew to house thousands of miners flocking to the area, but the boom was short-lived. Mining operations dried up by 1877. The town would see a few small-scale revivals during the early 1900s but has remained deserted for nearly 100 years.

The pair joined the newly launched Airbnb Adventures to offer guests the chance to book an exclusive weekend to relive the Wild West. The partnership could make for good timing as 74% of Americans report valuing experiences over products or things, according to research from Expedia.

The journey from deserted town to luxury resort may be just as long and rocky as the road to Cerro Gordo itself, but that’s not stopping Underwood — watch as he presents his vision for his $1.4 million ghost town.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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