June 15, 2005 - On the hottest Saturday morning of the year, sitting on a cool stone bench tucked away in a corner of the plaza outside the Oro Valley town hall, three women are wrapped in a warm breeze and pleasant conversation.
It's about 10 a.m. and the Oro Valley Farmer's Market is buzzing around them. To their right, a mother, father and little girl share some fresh baked goodies from one of the market vendors. To their left, bright red bags of freshly roasted coffee beans move like hot stock. And in front of them a gentleman is selling barbecue, the spicy scent of super-secret sauce filling the air.
Carol Vondurant and Liz Douglass say they love being surrounded by the ambiance of the market, and often meet there to have a cup of coffee and to socialize with one another.
"It makes the community feel smaller," Douglass says, taking a break in the shade offered by a long, low-hanging branch of an ironwood.
"It has that European feel," she says. "You can gather with friends in such an intimate place."
The friends sometimes meet new people at the market but often come just to meet each other.
They bring along Nikki, a fluffy caramel colored canine, who occasionally meets someone new as well.
Today they also are accompanied by a friend of the human persuasion from Tucson, Ann Bruno, who says her first experience with the market in Oro Valley has been a positive one, agreeing with her company that the atmosphere created on the open plaza around the town hall is one of a close-knit community.
The trio also enjoys meeting at the local Starbucks and at Tohono Chul Park but says that, as cozy meeting places go, the pickings are slim in town.
In the few years that the farmers market has been held at the town hall, it has routinely attracted small crowds.
Many of the people who frequent the market say that is because it is one of the few places in town that is conducive to casual gathering and socializing, to meeting old friends or new neighbors. It's also one of a handful of places people rattle off when asked what there is to do in this small suburban desert town.
Depending on who is talking, Oro Valley is either a town of numerous recreational activities or a place where there is nothing to do but sit around and stare at the cholla, or a healthy mix of both.
But as the community changes from a primarily retirement community to a place full of families and young couples, the needs for culture and entertainment change as well.
So, the EXPLORER set out to find where people meet, what they do, and what they think is still missing from the equation.
Some people want more shopping opportunities, others more parks. Some want big city amenities while others hope the town makes open spaces and quiet top priorities.
As the town approaches an expected 40,000 in population, it has been the job of the town's planners and council members to figure out what the community wants and needs and to encourage a balance of activities to satisfy everyone - no small feat.
The town of Oro Valley over the past decade has recognized the need to provide recreational and cultural activities, and has designed programs and events to address that.
Perhaps the No. 1 example of the success of such programs is the farmers market, which tops many people's lists when they are asked about places where they gather.
Vicki Sims runs the show on Saturdays for Mama Lama, a homemade empanada business. She has been setting up shop in Oro Valley for a year and said she has lots of chatty regulars who come with their family and friends and spend hours talking to each other and to all the vendors.
"I think some people come just to talk to other people," she said of her experience at the market.
Merchant Graham Sorenson, owner of Luna Aromatics, which sells scented candles, soaps and lip balms, agreed with Sims.
"This is definitely a place where people get together," he said. "They stop, chat, tell us about their family."
He said he has many regulars, like a deaf woman who, when she approaches the table waves a $20 bill at him, his cue to prepare the five bars of soap she buys each time.
Tony and Margie Parolisi make the trip from SaddleBrooke most Saturday mornings to have "coffee and a bun" at the market. They enjoy the chance to meet new people and like talking with the local farmers and trying their goods. They moved to the area from Florida and Tony Parolisi said everyone they have had the chance to speak with here has been "agreeable and amicable."
In addition to the market, the Parolisis have enjoyed several of the Greater Oro Valley Arts Council events in the town, and they think offering the events to the public is a testament to the kind of community Oro Valley is.
Throughout the EXPLORER's informal survey of local residents' favorite places to go and things to do in town, the events sponsored by the Greater Oro Valley Arts Council came up again and again.
Hearing this makes GOVAC President Satish Hiremath happy because one of his primary goals is to bring the community together through the arts, he said.
He believes people, in general, don't take enough time to get to know one another. Instead, they avoid eye contact with each other in the grocery store and caution their children not to talk to strangers. But if several thousand people can come together at a GOVAC event, they get to interact with their neighbors in "a safe and controlled environment."
"And if they do that, then suddenly we aren't strangers anymore," Hiremath said. Thousands of people from throughout the region attend GOVAC events each year, including a spring and fall art and music festival and annual Fourth of July celebration.
Oro Valley resident Tom Stamm doesn't drink coffee, but he made the trip down the road to the farmers market for his wife to pick up some Wild Rose Company brew, roasted fresh every Wednesday, from Ron Rose, a market merchant.
Stamm said he and his wife often peruse the market on Saturday mornings, and he said Oro Valley's offering of activities such as the market is one of the reasons it is a topnotch community, in his mind.
In the few years that he has lived in the town, Stamm said he has seen again and again why it's a community where he wants to raise his family.
"Oro Valley is the only place where you can get a cop faster than you can get a pizza," he said, which makes him feel safe.
And, he said, he was impressed when a few weeks ago town staff members handed out free doughnuts and coffee to residents for being patient as road work was being done on La Cañada Drive.
"That was really strange," he said. "You just don't see that kind of thing happen anywhere."
Stamm said his family doesn't leave the town for much, and he likes it the way it is.
"There's not a 7-Eleven on every corner, but if you need something, you can find it," he said.
He said he is impressed with the existing parks and how well-kept they are. If there were one thing he wished there was more of, it would be parks, and more hiking opportunities.
The town has two "active" parks: Canada del Oro Riverfront Park, on Lambert Lane, and James D. Kreigh Park, on Calle Concordia. Both parks are bursting with users.
"It doesn't take a professional to see that those parks are overtaxed," said Ainsley Reeder, the town's parks and recreation administrator.
The parks are used for everything from organized sports to casual picnics.
On a typical Tuesday night at Riverfront Park, the Little Leaguers mixed with dog walkers, joggers and those out for a little fresh air.
Bruce Groen and his wife were at the park with the Bible study group they lead, called Fusion. The group is part of the Desert Son Community Church, on Cortaro Road. The group of about 40 meets regularly at the Groen house, but it gets out from time to time for some recreation and enjoys the Oro Valley park.
Fusion is a group for young adults and college-aged individuals, exclusively, because the Groens saw a need for those people to have positive activities to engage in.
On weekends and evenings, it is often hard to find a parking spot at either of the town's parks, Reeder said, as groups such as Fusion overflow the facilities. The parks department wants to have space for everyone but has had to turn away leagues wanting to use the parks for baseball or soccer, and Reeder said the staff also spends time talking to people about other places to take their activities regionally because there is no space left in Oro Valley.
One way the town hopes to address the space issues, created by the rapid growth of the town in the late 1990s and early 2000, is to develop the Naranja Town Site, said Community Development Director Brent Sinclair.
The site, located between Naranja Drive and Tangerine Road, is 213 acres of hills and dust, brush and cactus that is planned for development as a regional park.
A master plan of the site was developed in 2002, which lays out baseball, soccer and football fields, trails, tennis courts, a BMX course and skate park, a performing arts center, a community center, a dog park, various playgrounds and open spaces.
"It's not just a park, it will be a place," Sinclair said, a place with opportunities for recreation and culture, as well as a community center.
As the town was master planning the Naranja site, Sinclair said it became clear that even with the addition of 200-plus acres of space not all the area's needs would be met.
"This whole area is deficient," Sinclair said, in parks and recreation spaces. "There is a great need for additional facilities."
But even though town officials are aware of the need, the site has sat vacant for years because a way to pay for it has not been identified.
The town staff, including Sinclair and Finance Director David Andrews, recently submitted a rough draft of a funding strategy for the site to town management. Sinclair said the next step for the town in the planning process is to look at the master plan and figure out just how many tennis courts there will be, for example, and what materials will be used to construct them. By doing this for each area of the park, the town will be able to more accurately project the costs involved in construction and maintenance. Past estimates for completing the site ranged from $30 million to $60 million.
Reeder said that as long as the parks are crunched for space the staff will continue to be creative in finding places to house various classes and recreational opportunities. Classes are held at both parks, the municipal pool, local schools and the town's rec room, a leased space on North La Cañada Drive. Classes even have been conducted in the town council meeting room and in other town government meeting spaces from time to time when there was nowhere else to go. The town also has formed partnerships with businesses, such as Karate 4 Kids, to offer classes at their facilities.
"It's a task, and it's a really difficult one," Reeder said of the challenge in finding a place to put all the people who are interested in participating in some aspect of the parks and recreations programs.
Reeder said that, because of the space issues the town is facing, her focus has been on making sure youth leagues are able to use the various sporting fields around town. But with so many young children on the fields, there is no time left to have adult leagues, and seniors are relegated to one time slot early in the day if they want to take to the diamonds for a few games.
Families such as the Parolisis said they hope the town is able to build the Naranja Town Site in the near future and said they would love to take advantage of the opportunity to see shows at a performing arts center. Tony Parolisi said he and his wife enjoy watching a variety of performances and recently waited in line for two and a half hours to get tickets for upcoming shows at SaddleBrooke's new amphitheater. If Oro Valley were to build a facility, the Parolisis said they would certainly pay to attend events there and they are sure many of their friends would as well.
"The more parks, the better," Tony Parolisi said. "With the population explosion, there's not enough space for everyone. We use a lot of the parks, and we see all the other people that use them, too."
Tony Parolisi said he thinks the Tucson area is having the same problem he observed in Florida when it comes to creating more public spaces and that is raising the money to pay for them.
And he said he thinks most people would support many new endeavors if they just understood how the money would be used.
"I don't think most people would say no," he said. "You need the library expanded, sure. If people were educated about why, I think they would agree."
But there are things a town government can't provide. A place to meet for coffee, cheesecake and a healthy dose of dish with your girlfriends. A place to watch the big game over wings and a few cold ones with the guys.
Oro Valley is not a big city. Many of the people who live here would agree that's the way they like it.
There are no museums, theaters or convention centers. There are no shopping malls, swinging nightclubs or major or minor league ball parks. But many of those things can be found nearby.
So what does the town need in its own backyard?
Sinclair said the town has very little control over what types of businesses decide to open their doors in Oro Valley because that is driven by what kind of market exists in the community.
The town's economic development department does recruit some businesses, but, for the most part, it is the business owners, and not the town, who are in control.
However, as Oro Valley, and the areas surrounding it, grows, it seems to be attracting more than banks, gas stations and grocery stores.
In addition to the park development, Sinclair said there are several commercial developments in the works for the town that are planned to include entertainment opportunities. Steam Pump Village, on Oracle Road north of Hanely Boulevard, will be home to a new Steinway Piano Gallery, with an outdoor adjacent amphitheater for concerts.
The developers of Oro Valley Marketplace, at Oracle and Tangerine roads, have said a movie theater and several restaurants are included in the plans.
Sinclair said the town is working with the developers to create shopping centers that are easy to get around on foot and that have outdoor seating and open spaces as part of the design. By including these types of elements in a large retail center, the town hopes to make it the kind of place where people will go for leisurely meeting and shopping.
"When you do this, you aren't just putting in retail stores, you're making places for people," Sinclair said.
Young adults, particularly single ones, and teenagers give the loudest voice to the "there's nothing to do" argument in Oro Valley and would like to see more of these "people places" come to fruition.
But, because necessity is the mother of invention, they have found some places to suit their needs in the meantime.
Emily Rockey, 18, a recent graduate of Ironwood Ridge High School, was just finishing lunch with a group of her friends at Nico's Taco Shop on North La Cañada Drive when she revealed one of the more popular meeting places in that part of town.
"This is definitely a place to hang out," she said, as groups of teenagers filtered in and out of the small restaurant around her. At lunch time and after school, the line at Nico's often stretches out the front door and onto the sidewalk.
Rockey said she went to Nico's just about every day for lunch while in school, and she said many of the students from the nearby high school did the same. It's close, the food is good and inexpensive, and there aren't a lot of other places to go, she said, her friends nodding their heads in agreement.
From talking with several of the teenagers clustered in groups outside the Oro Valley establishment, it becomes clear that many of them agree there are limited options when looking for something to do in the town.
Food is a sure way to many of the young people's hearts, so a short list of local eateries comes up again and again when they are asked to name hot spots: Nico's, Risky Business, Keva Juice and Quizno's are a few that are named repeatedly.
Movies and shopping also top the list of pastimes, but the teenagers say they have to leave Oro Valley to find a theater or a mall. Both Foothills Mall and Tucson Mall are cited as places teenagers like to meet friends.
Rockey said she spends a lot of time at other friends' houses, and she said that even if there were malls or movie theaters in Oro Valley that probably wouldn't change. She said even though she does leave town for some of her favorite activities, she believes there is enough to do to keep her and her friends busy.
Not everyone at Nico's agreed.
"There is nothing," said Sean Roberts, who also was standing outside Nico's on that hot May afternoon. He and his friends like to skate, and he said they often go to Marana's skate park because there is nothing similar in Oro Valley. They also make their way to midtown whenever possible to check out some of their favorite hangouts.
One girl with the group said a lot of kids her age like to meet on the fairways of local golf courses after hours, although, when asked why, she broke into giggles and didn't answer.
The town, and organizations in it, is aware of the boredom plaguing its young people, and it is making plans to address those blues.
GOVAC's Hiremath said that, while the organization does not want to lose sight of maintaining its strong and loyal base of supporters who attend its events, it recognizes the number of children and families in the town is increasing and wants to provide more opportunities for them.
GOVAC began in the mid-1990s by presenting jazz and classical music as well as visual art to a mostly adult audience.
In May, for the first time in the decade-long history of GOVAC, a punk rock band performance was sponsored at CDO Riverfront Park. The attendance was lower than expected, Hiremath said, although the concert was on a Sunday night on the same weekend as many local high school graduations and graduation parties.
"It was the first step in a long series of steps that we need to make to make sure every sector of the population … will have a place they can go as a part of the arts in Oro Valley," he said.
Hiremath said GOVAC exists to provide culture and entertainment to the community, and so if the community believes it is lacking something in the arts arena, he encourages it to speak up.
"We need to know from the public what it is they want us to do," he said.
Echoing Reeder, Hiremath said GOVAC also is limited by space.
The arts council uses the town's parks to hold its major events, and it also has formed partnerships with the town and the schools.
Hiremath said the arts council has often talked about sponsoring a monthly coffee to get the community together but has not been able to find a space for such an event.
GOVAC also would like to offer theater to the Northwest, but it does not have a facility to house it. He hopes that, if a facility is built at the Naranja Town Site, GOVAC will be able to present theater productions and perhaps even begin a children's theater so young people can learn to direct, build sets, run lights and sound, and acquire all the other myriad skills that go into a full-scale production.
He said he believes it is particularly important to provide opportunities for young people to keep them engaged in positive activities and around people who could have a positive influence on their lives.
Reeder said the parks and recreation department recognizes a need in the town to provide things to do for adults, and teenagers, as well, and she said the department "is working hard to offer things for adults and young adults to do."
In 1999, when Reeder joined the town staff, there were fewer than a half dozen recreational classes available through the town, including junior golf and aquatics. This summer, more than 40 programs are being offered.
What is available depends on what people are interested in, what the town has space for, and what instructors are available and willing to teach, Reeder said.
The town tries to provide an opportunity for each age group to have a class in each of the recreational areas. For example, Baby Boot Camp is a class that allows a parent and a baby to participate in an exercise program, and Teen Dance Camp focuses on jazz, funk and hip-hop for young people. Jazzercise, one of the town's most popular programs, with eight classes being offered this summer, attracts mostly adults.
The opportunities in town range from various visual art and design classes to music lessons, several club sports and exercise programs, and even classes catered to meeting the needs of you and your dog.
"We're always trying to think of how we can provide every kind of opportunity to every age group," Reeder said.
She said adding space, such as would be provided at the Naranja Town Site, would help because more classes could be offered.
While meeting with various groups to plan the town site, Sinclair said he got the message loud and clear from young people, in particular, that they wanted more places to meet and play.
"The need was yesterday," he said.
With the future full of new projects, from the town site to the new retail and entertainment venues, he believes those needs will be addressed.
"We're still growing, and there are more of these types of places coming," Sinclair said. "If they can just hold on another year or two."