/ Modified jul 19, 2019 4:55 p.m.

Tourism a growing priority in some rural communities

Arizona 360 looks at how some smaller towns and cities are banking on tourism to boost their economies.

It’s that time of year when families pack their bags for summer vacation. Tourism generates billions of dollars for the state each year. The Arizona Office of Tourism found visitors spent more than $22 billion in 2017. While the Grand Canyon and the Phoenix and Tucson metros pull in the most cash, smaller communities are devising ways to capitalize on a growing industry. This week, Tony Paniagua and Arizona 360 traveled to three rural communities to see their approaches.

While Ajo is part of Pima County, residents of the former mining town live closer to the beaches of Mexico than Tucson or Phoenix. During the summer months, when many retirees leave for cooler climates, the population hovers around 3,500. It’s a sharp decline from the 10,000 or so who once called Ajo home in the 1980s before a nearby copper mine shut down.

In recent years, the community has taken steps to lure new residents. They transformed a former high school into a housing and studio space for artists. Another closed school became the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center.

“The goal was really, one, to meet an affordable housing need; two, to save a really important building; and three, to get a bunch of creatives together in one place. What we’ve seen historically is when you get a critical mass of creatives all together cool things happen. People open coffee shops and galleries,” Aaron Cooper said. Cooper is with the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, a group that works to improve the economy and celebrate the culture of the region.

Leaders in Ajo are attempting to improve the areas curb appeal. It’s location along State Route 85 puts it on the way to Puerto Peñasco in Sonora, Mexico, for vehicles coming from Phoenix. Cooper would like to see more of these travelers stop and stay a while.

“We’re working with our businesses on saying, ‘How do you put your best foot forward, how do you put your message out there more effectively?’ so someone passing through can better understand the resources that are here and why they might be interested for stopping longer than just to get Mexican insurance,” Cooper said.

The town of Mammoth got its name from a nearby copper mine considered mammoth in size, according to town leaders. With operations that mine and another neighboring mine both things of the past, Mammoth needs new businesses to trigger another boom.

“We beg, borrow and steal what we can. The Air Force base donates different vehicles to keep us going. I’ve never begged so much in my life,” said Don Jones, city manager and former mayor of Mammoth.

Jones said the town’s population is gradually shrinking, causing tax revenues to drop. However, he sees potential in its location along State Route 77, which connects Tucson to Roosevelt Lake and other recreational areas in eastern Arizona. The challenge is getting the steady stream of travelers to stop and spend their money in town.

One strategy involves enticing people to open new businesses. Opportunity came knocking for Luis Carlos Lopez about six years ago. He was working at a butcher shop in Tucson when town council members approached him about opening a meat market in Mammoth. After some negotiating, Lopez opened Rancheros Carniceria in 2014. He wants to expand in a different building, but is struggling to hire enough staff.

“Here there’s a smaller population. So, we do have a hard time with that,” Lopez said. “I think every business has its challenges, and that may be my challenge to overcome.”

“It’s a prime area. The town will help any way they can to get businesses in here,” Jones said.

When traveling west on Interstate 10 from New Mexico, Willcox is one of the largest communities drivers will see first. The city is in the midst of taking a new approach to turn it into a destination, rather than a thoroughfare to somewhere else.

Caleb Blaschke accepted the job of city manager a year ago. One of his top priorities is to promote the community’s many events, western culture and growing winery culture. That includes renovating Willcox’s visitor center and forming a new marketing and tourism commission that meets weekly. Community leaders and business owners trade ideas about how to market themselves and cross promote each other.

“It’s hard to help people catch the vision. And that’s something this community has done a great job of doing. All these business owners and event organizers, they’ve caught the vision and they’re on fire right now. They’re wanting to work and see things happen,” Blaschke said.

“Willcox, we can’t do it alone. We need Cochise County,” Blaschke said. “We all have a stake in it together and it’s really trying to get other councils from other groups to buy into this as well. It goes beyond our community, which is hard.”

Rural communities aren’t alone in their efforts to create thriving economies. Organizations like Local First Arizona can offer help. Tony Paniagua discussed the issue with Liza Noland who serves as director of rural programs. Noland works with councils and chambers in rural areas on initiatives designed to grow their economies.

“There is no shortage of effort, heart and great ideas in rural. But what they struggle with is access to money, funding for these ideas, time and people. It’s just a matter of how do we actually implement some of these ideas to help grow these communities,” Noland said. She also explained some common missteps she sees in some communities.

“‘Because we’ve always done it this way, we continue to do it this way.’ I think that’s a major misstep. I also hear a lot of, ‘We’ve tried that in the past, it didn’t work.’ And I think what’s missed in that is a lot of the time things change. There’s new momentum, there’s new energy, there’s new people involved in an initiative,” Noland said. “We don’t try new things and think outside the box.”

Arizona 360
Arizona 360 airs Fridays at 8:30 p.m. on PBS 6 and Saturdays at 8 p.m. on PBS 6 PLUS. See more from Arizona 360.
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