historic preservation with momentum for growth

By Philip S. Moore, Inside Tucson Business

Far from being the "Town Too Tough to Die," these days, Tombstone is facing the challenge of how to meet the demands of a growing population and balance historical preservation at the same time.

And, because it is Tombstone, the juggling act is being played out in front of a widespread audience, which only adds to the complexity of finding solutions.

Nearly a year ago, the National Register of Historic Places put the Tombstone on notice over repeated violations of its historic landmark status.

Six months ago, work began on a 1,100-home resort community at the foot of the nearby Dragoon Mountains.

Cochise County's legendary mining town is attempting to deal with both while continuing to host nearly half a million visitors each year who want to experience life on the 19th century Arizona frontier.

"The problem with the National Register is an old story, but we're trying to get this resolved," said City Manager Marilynn Slade. "We've put in for a $100,000 grant from the state's historic preservation office for restoration of Schieffelin Hall, which is the world's largest adobe building still being used. We're also restoring the fire station."

She said the city is also working to encourage merchants in its six-block historic district, between Fremont and Toughnut streets, to remodel building facades to meet the register's requirements. The city's offices are preparing to move to the old high school building, allowing the historic city hall to be restored and used as a museum.

"We've put in for a $20,000 grant from the Tohono O'odham to help pay for the restorations, which will be overseen by our historic district commission, which controls building styles and colors to make sure everything is in compliance," Slade said.

Ben Traywick, Tombstone's city historian, guides the commission. He says the city is trying to meet the register's standards, but it's not easy.

"Right now, we don't have definite guidelines from the government," Traywick said, arguing the national register's objection to unhistorical signage is easy to understand but other arguments over colors that aren't as clear-cut.

"They have a list of approved colors that looks like they came from Colonial Williamsburg. They don't match what was being done in Tombstone during the 1880s," Traywick said.

The mine buildings, as well as others, were often "barn red," thanks to the availability of cheap red paint from the Southern Pacific Railroad, and plaster was usually pink, reflecting the color of the nearby sand used in the mixture, he said.

"People here built with whatever they could get a hold of, scrap lumber or whatever," Traywick said. "If a man had a wood building, he'd pour together whatever paint was available and God knows what color he'd come up with."

The solution to most of the town's problems with the National Register of Historic Places can be resolved by "giving the government a history lesson about western boomtowns." The rest would be resolved by better rules and more effort in local enforcement.

"They've had the same problems at Fort Huachuca and Bisbee, but you don't hear about them because they aren't Tombstone. A few years ago, we had a small cave-in on Toughnut Street and we got calls from as far away as Indonesia from people worried that the town was in danger. When it's Tombstone, it's always blown out of proportion," Traywick said.

While the city resolves its differences over history, the future is making itself felt. After seven years of effort, developer Jay Boland is continuing to move forward with his plan to make use of the Tombstone name, mild climate and abundant spring water to attract people to his proposed Bachmann Springs luxury resort hotel, golf course and home sites, at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains.

Tombstone's population of 1,500 could triple in size with the completion of Bachmann Springs, and there are indications that Boland's project could be followed by other projects, from north of the city, at the intersection of Arizona State Route 80 and State Route 82, to the south, east and west of the community, as buyers acquire homes and property inside and outside the city limits, said Amy Martinez, office manager for the Long Realty office in Tombstone.

"Everybody in the world seems to want land down here," she said. "We have a lot of people who are retiring here and others who come for the winter. They are looking for a place less crowded. Many baby boomers are drawn by the legend of the Old West to leave the East or Midwest for here."

Martinez said investors are also making their presence felt as they look for property that can be developed to meet the growing demands for housing in Sierra Vista.

"That city is only about 20 minutes away and not a bad drive at all. Depending on what part of Sierra Vista you're trying to get to, the drive to Tombstone could take less time," she said.

Area ranchers have started selling off parcels in 40-acre sections. Further subdivision, into four-acre lots, is possible without rezoning. Higher density projects would need approval from Cochise County, but that's not likely to be a significant obstacle, said Mark Apel, senior planner for the county.

For now, he said, the majority of home sales are for older homes in the city or manufactured homes on surrounding acreage. But the situation is fluid and favors growth.

"All you need is for somebody to buy up land for subdivision and everything changes, and that could happen tomorrow," Apel said.

Philip S. Moore may be contacted by e-mail at pmoore@azbiz.com or call (520) 295-4238.