Maria’s recent article “Two More Businesses Close Their Doors” provided excellent and thoughtful observations about some of the factors that lead to business closures as well as the historically anemic record of economic growth in Wickenburg. Whether you are a full-time resident or seasonal visitor, I hope you will read it and the numerous comments posted by readers. It prompted me to engage in some reflection about why we chose to move here seven years ago. More importantly her article made me think about the underlying issues, possible solutions and consequences of healthy and sustainable growth for our town. My conclusions may not be perfectly aligned with those stated by Maria and they are probably even less aligned with the Town Council and Chamber of Commerce; but I think we all share a common desire for Wickenburg. That is:
- The preservation and enhancement of Wickenburg’s unique “identity,” which necessarily includes our history and scenic habitat.
- The growth of local businesses that can more completely serve the needs of residents and visitors on a year-round basis.
- The retention of retail and tax revenue that otherwise ends up in metro-Phoenix or Prescott.
- The development of jobs that produce significantly higher income and employment than is presently found in Wickenburg.
I doubt that anyone could argue with those objectives. Achieving and maintaining a balance between them will not be easy; but I do not think it is impossible. It is however quite impossible to turn an unstated vision into an actionable plan that contains concrete, achievable and measurable goals. That is precisely what we have in Wickenburg today — unarticulated goals and visions. There are times when I wonder if the vision has even been thought out.
What Does Wickenburg Mean to You?
If you were given thirty seconds to describe your vision for the future of Wickenburg, what would you say? If you had to describe another town or city that you would like to see Wickenburg emulate, which one would it be?
Phoenix: With its blanket of smog and intolerable traffic congestion?
Surprise: With its postage-stamp sized retirement lots, but with abundant shopping?
Prescott: With its scenic beauty and a well developed sense of its place in Western history — but with unsustainable water consumption and ugly growth?
Quartzsite: With its thousands of motor homes that pull up stakes as soon as the temperature reaches 85 degrees?
Or would you say “none of the above, I want Wickenburg to remain as it is?”
The sad but inevitable fact is that Wickenburg will not remain as it is today; but it has every real possibility of becoming like any one of the cities or towns listed above. Growth is headed our way and you can’t stop it. The question is: How do you want to shape the future of Wickenburg in a way that provides and maintains the life style and qualities that you desire?
What Makes Wickenburg a “Destination” Location?
When I think of destination locations in Arizona, the first things that come to mind are places like the Grand Canyon, Sedona’s Red Rock country, Whiskey Row in Old Prescott, and Old Town Tempe. These are tourism destinations that capitalize upon and, in some cases, garishly exploit the natural beauty of the land, the history of the area or that capitalize upon high populations such as ASU football fans and local students. There are many others that you could name, of course. Metropolitan Phoenix has many bedroom communities primarily because it has jobs. Prescott has scenic beauty and history, but it also has jobs and a younger population than Wickenburg. Quartzsite essentially evaporates by the middle of May — right on schedule with Wickenburg.
Other than marketing our town as a desirable part-time location for retirees or as an ephemeral destination for snowbirds, I have never heard anyone articulate a vision of why people should come to (and remain in) Wickenburg. Thousands of people pass through town every week on their way between metro-Phoenix and Las Vegas. For these speeding travelers, Wickenburg serves as a “potty break” destination and little more. This traffic supports a few minimum wage jobs at McDonalds and Burger King. Smart travelers will have filled their gas tanks before passing through town because they know that the Mobil Station on U.S. 93 will gouge up to 30 cents more per gallon than Phoenix.
Here are my interpretations of what makes Wickenburg a destination location today:
Seasonal Weather: The six or seven months of debatably mild temperatures motivate retirees to live here, but this general group is predominantly seasonal in nature. Based upon the statistics provided in Maria’s article, 26% of our “resident” population is retired. Although these folks may have a sizable investment in their property, they typically have little or no investment in the economic future of the community. Their presence helps to sustain low paying jobs at Bashas’ and Safeway, but little else. They get their medical treatment in metro-Phoenix and their generic prescriptions for $4.00 at the Wal-Mart in Surprise. Motor Home Snowbirds round out this category. You’ve seen these folks – they are parked out in the desert between October and April and come into town occasionally to buy groceries. They are why the liquor department at Safeway is roughly four times as large as the bread aisle. They have no investment in the future of Wickenburg – all of the seasonal retirees are here because it is either snowing in Minnesota or raining in Oregon.
Behavior Disorder Treatment Facilities: This is the largest employment sector for Wickenburg, but it cannot be characterized as a growth industry (at least – I hope not). In any case, it does not generate many high income jobs. It does, however, dominate the available real estate in downtown Wickenburg.
Horse Trails, Riders and Rodeos: You may be surprised to learn that horse riders from outside of Wickenburg bring $13 – 16 million in annual revenue. I have not seen the statistical breakdown of where and how this revenue is generated, but common sense tells me this doesn’t produce any high paying jobs in town. Riders come here to enjoy the relative isolation, excellent terrain and clean air. Unfortunately, the persistent destruction of horse trails by developers and ATVs could eventually force these riders to abandon our area.
Seasonal and Weekend Outing Visitors: You’ve seen these folks too. They are the weekend thrill seekers that create the huge dust clouds east of Wickenburg while driving their ATVs or dirt bikes. Other than refilling their beer chests and topping off their gas tanks, they produce little economic value to Wickenburg. They are, however, destroying the habitat with illegal trails and litter. This will eventually make Wickenburg a less desirable destination.
Desert Caballeros Western Museum: This is a well regarded destination point for tourists. It is not a reason why someone would move to Wickenburg, but it is a very bright spot in the culture and history of our town.
Hassayampa River Preserve: A unique riparian habitat that attracts many seasonal visitors that do not live here. This private organization has the most far-sighted vision of any group in the Wickenburg area, but it is confined to an ecological niche.
Wickenburg Gold rush Days: Three days of chaos and traffic congestion that produces a spike in sales tax revenue from people that do not live here. That leaves 362 other days to be concerned about.
If you can think of other factors that make Wickenburg a “destination” rather than an irritating narrow spot in the highway for motorists, I would certainly like to hear your nominations.
Growth: What Type and Where?
I listed four bullet points at the beginning that reasonably qualify as objectives for Wickenburg’s future. You may have other objectives that are equally valid. Notice that I did not include “population growth” among them. Population growth results from the proximity of jobs, affordable housing and factors that pertain to “quality of life,” such as shopping, schools, etc. Metropolitan areas like Queen Creek, in the extreme southeast area of metro-Phoenix, have seen phenomenal population growth; but the jobs are not in Queen Creek and the quality of life issues are seriously degraded by long commutes to work, horrific traffic congestion, pollution and more. If you were looking for a model of what Wickenburg should not become, I can’t think of a better example than Queen Creek. But, if you want to see a “melt down” of the housing market in Wickenburg, copy the economic model of Queen Creek. The area is almost exclusively characterized by high density, cheap (but still unaffordable,) housing that is probably destined to become a major crime area within five years.
Wickenburg’s leaders seem to be hell-bent on growth through annexation of land to keep from being overrun by Surprise, Peoria and Buckeye. This seems to be a reactive, defensive posture that has the peculiar smell of panic. In the meantime, developers in town have a free hand to destroy the very things that have given Wickenburg its unique identity – a place with clean air, star-filled skies, panoramic vistas and rich history. Without a vision and thoughtful planning we are at risk of becoming another Queen Creek, but with the added risk of loosing our current identity and quality of life.
Meanwhile, after the sun goes down, so does Wickenburg’s downtown area. If you desire the historic district of Wickenburg (from the Hassayampa Bridge to North Tegner) to become a major destination point for residents and visitors, there isn’t a lot of area to work with; however, the potential exists to turn it into a restaurant, cultural and entertainment magnet. I believe this can only happen if some of the businesses in the “downtown” area can be persuaded to relocate. And, if you REALLY want to think “out of the box,” some long time business anchors should be relocated to provide additional space for this type of development. If you are at all familiar with Old Town Tempe, then visualize a comparable area in “downtown” Wickenburg. We have just about the same amount of space to work with. This could be a place where residents and visitors alike could dine, shop and linger. As it is today, the only attractions to the downtown area after dark are our theater, three or four restaurants and a couple of bars. Spatial growth – the development of available land – is very tightly constrained. There is no place for it to go or grow unless we look at its use in a different way.
So, where are the areas that will lead to an increase in the geographic size of Wickenburg? Land developers already know the answer: North along U.S. 93 and AZ 89 toward Congress; west along U.S. 60 toward Aguila; south along U.S. 60 toward Morristown; and south along Vulture Mine Road toward the eventual border with Buckeye. Development is already underway in the northern, western and southern U.S. 60 directions. It is a horse race to see what happens on the southern stretches of Vulture Mine Road.
In any case, I submit that two things will happen regarding growth in and around Wickenburg unless we can develop a clearly articulated vision and plan:
First, the cities of Peoria, Surprise and Buckeye will grow in our direction much more quickly than we will be able to push our borders in their direction. As that happens, the distance to the closest Wal-Mart or Home Depot will no longer be 35 miles – it will become only ten. If you think we have a problem with “retail leakage” today, imagine what it will happen when people can make a round trip to one of these stores on less than a gallon of gas.
Second, the growth of Wickenburg will continue to be residential in nature (primarily oriented toward retirement) and there will be no development of jobs other than retail sales clerk positions in ugly strip malls.
More to Come
In the next segment of this article I will attempt to address the factors that could contribute to a healthy growth of our town. In the meantime, you are most welcome to submit your comments. I would be delighted to include your observations.
Last 5 posts by Allan Hall
- Wickenburg Hospitality Comes in Many Forms - December 15th, 2010
- Calliandra Eriophylla is Native to the Wickenburg Area - December 9th, 2010
- Goodbye, Old Bridge - November 29th, 2010
- Abandoned Mines Part III: Preserving the "Whispering Ranch" Mine - March 25th, 2010
- Abandoned Mines Part II: Protective Closures - March 10th, 2010