'Gateway' to bring historic changes to town of Marana - The Explorer: Import

'Gateway' to bring historic changes to town of Marana

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Posted: Tuesday, May 18, 2004 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:48 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

When bulldozers crashed through Marana's business district in 1961 to make way for Interstate 10, they leveled the three-story high school that towered over the laser-flat cotton fields and scattered the businesses that constituted the heart of the tiny farming community.

More than 40 years later, Marana is working to rebuild the downtown it lost on the west side of I-10 at the Marana exit. But the plan to redevelop "Marana's gateway" from its current haphazard and slightly rundown appearance into acres of retail shops and subdivisions will in turn bring about other historic losses.

Tucson development giant Diamond Ventures has submitted plans to convert the 835-acre farm owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between Sanders and Wentz roads into a 2,750-home subdivision known as Sanders Grove. The project, which is still in its conceptual stage, would mark the end of the Mormon church's long history of farming in Marana.

The encroachment of development will also likely mean the 190 cultivated acres at the University of Arizona's Agricultural Research Center are headed for the auction block.

The UA's farm, located just east of the LDS farm, provided hands-on education for hundreds of ag students over the last half century as it served to promote the science of farming cotton and other regional crops.

Town officials have also confirmed plans for retail development just west of Interstate 10 on Sandario Road that will sound the death knell for the historic Producers Cotton Gin. The Depression-era adobe office and warehouse buildings, built in 1938, are among the last historic structures in Marana.

"It's pretty much a done deal at this point that the gin buildings are coming down," Marana Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said. "We'll be meeting next week with the developers to see if we can work out the details. Our plan at this point is to have (the gin buildings) reconstructed at the Heritage Park."

Preservationists, including former Marana Mayor Ora Mae Harn, have tried unsuccessfully since 2000 to save the buildings that sit on property at 13864 N. Sandario Road owned by Yankee Point, LLC. Tentative plans include trying to salvage some of the wood paneled interior and other fixtures from the gin office to incorporate into a facsimile of the buildings that would be built at the Marana Heritage Park the town is planning near Sandario and Moore roads.

Just west and south of the gin planners envision a string of retail shops on property owned by Susan Ong, daughter of farmer and retailer Sam Chu, as the heart of the gateway.

Driving the changes along Marana Road is the simple fact that North Marana is exploding with development, Reuwsaat said.

Fed by projects such as the 1,900-home Gladden Farms subdivision that is just beginning to rise near Sandario and Moore roads, town planners are forecasting 18,000 new homes will be built west of I-10 and 8,000 homes east of the interstate in North Marana in the next 25 years.

A new "town core" under construction in the area just west of Ora Mae Harn Park, 13250 N. Lon Adams Road, that will a feature municipal complex and retail shops has led to the focus on constructing a new gateway at the Marana exit.

Dan Post, who has managed the LDS's farms in the Marana area for the last 32 years, said low cotton prices and the church's refusal to accept federal farm subsidies on moral grounds led to the decision to assign a purchase option to Diamond Ventures.

The church also owns farm properties south of the Santa Cruz River near Silverbell Road and near the Pinal Airpark north of Marana but the LDS has already leased those properties out to other farmers, Post said.

"As far as actual operations, the church here has gotten out of farming. It won't take any government subsidies or crop payments and they've been losing money over the last few years because of really low cotton prices. They won't be farming in Marana anymore," said Post, who also serves as vice president of the Marana Unified School District Governing Board.

Linda Cohen, a public relations spokeswoman employed by Diamond Ventures, said the company has not determined yet how many homes would be included in the proposed Sanders Grove development. A specific plan submitted to the town of Marana places a target of 2,750 units for the subdivision.

The Marana Agricultural Center was purchased by the UA in 1950 and paid for itself within four years through the sale of crops it raised, according to The Cultures and History of Marana, a study completed for the town in 2002 by Old Pueblo Archeology which also chronicles the destruction of Marana's downtown 43 years ago.

The center had in past years focused on plant breeding programs, plant pathology and biotechnological research, according to its Web site.

Colin Kaltenbach, vice dean and director with the UA's College of Life Sciences and Agriculture, said the university has made no firm decisions yet, but is "moving in the direction" of closing the Marana Center.

"We're looking at relocating to some state land we have leased up near Red Rock," Kaltenbach said. "The location we have now is being surrounded by development and it will soon become nearly impossible for us to carry out our operations there."

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