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Historic Old Tucson becoming living history park

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Posted: Friday, January 24, 2014 8:02 am

Old Tucson Studios is planning to expand to become a multi-cultural living history educational center for southern Arizona.

As part of the transition, the for-profit Old Tucson Company, which operates the theme park, would turn over its lease to a newly-formed nonprofit organization, the Arizona Sonora Western Heritage Foundation. This would allow Old Tucson to both potentially renegotiate with its landlord, Pima County, and pursue grant funding and private donations.

The educational mission expands on some of the edutainment already at the park, like the can-can dancers and the gunfight reenactments.

Old Tucson’s history stretches back more than 70 years. As a filming location, especially for the period Westerns popular between the 1940s and 1970s, Old Tucson hosted several television shows and movie productions. It will continue to host filmmakers, but Old Tucson has long weathered a decline in film production, due to shifts in the industry and, as of late, Arizona’s lack of film tax incentives.

Old Tucson general manager and CEO Pete Mangelsdorf said the park also never really recovered from the arson fire of 1995, which destroyed more than half of the historical buildings and movie memorabilia. After five to 10 years, he hopes to see attendance increase by up to 70,000. It was about 190,000 last year.

“We want Old Tucson to survive and to be healthy, but we also want to give something back to the people of Pima County,” Mangelsdorf said. “The educational programs that we’re going to be able to provide here and the multi-cultural heritage projects that were going to be able to do we believe are going to do that.”

Under the stewardship of the Arizona Sonora Western Heritage Foundation and with the planned hiring of a development director, Old Tucson hopes to be an anthropological counterpart to its natural history neighbor, the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Through live demonstrations, displays, food and crafts, and experiential learning — like spins on a reproduction turn of the century bicycle, for instance – visitors can get an interactive glimpse of the region’s territorial days.

The park would recognize the contributions of Native American, Mexican and Spanish inhabitants, African, Asian and European settlers, Mormon and Jewish pioneers, and woman, along with the ranching, farming, mining and transportation industries.

Old Tucson Company would continue to operate the park, even with the foundation on the lease. The foundation’s partners include the University of Arizona and the Arizona Historical Society.

Old Tucson currently pays Pima County $64,000 a year in rent. That could change or stay the same with the new lease, Mangelsdorf said; park management is still in discussions with the county.

The expansion would require some new building, although Mangelsdorf said it’s too soon to predict how much that will cost.

Contact reporter Hillary Davis at hdavis @azbiz.com or (520) 295-4254.

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