Under the plan, the park’s familiar Western performances would be joined by a growing number of living-history programs and possibly historical re-enactments.

Ron Medvescek / Arizona Daily Star 2013

The company that runs the Old Tucson theme park is setting up a nonprofit foundation to take over the lease, and eventually the operations, of the park.

The newly established Arizona Sonora Western Heritage Foundation is in discussions with Pima County to take over the lease for the park within the next six months, said Old Tucson Co. CEO Pete Mangelsdorf.

The foundation will help the park move toward an educational mission, a move the park hopes will make it more financially sustainable.

Moving to a nonprofit-foundation model also lets the park pay a lower rate to lease the county property, and it lets the park apply for federal grants and solicit private donations. The nonprofit status of the group is pending IRS approval.

Old Tucson Co. pays $64,000 a year to Pima County to lease the land in Tucson Mountain Park.

If the foundation were to take over the lease agreement, the for-profit company would continue to operate the park in an agreement with the foundation, Mangelsdorf said.

This week Old Tucson announced plans to “expand Old Tucson into a multicultural Western heritage center.”

The main attractions will be interactive living-history programs, the announcement states.

County leaders are interested in the concept and are awaiting a more detailed plan before negotiating a new lease with the park, said Tom Moulton, Pima County economic development and tourism director.

The park began offering living-history programs three years ago and has expanded to seven programs, five of which are available each day, Mangelsdorf said.

The programs mix lessons and laughs about life in 1880s Arizona and feature characters including a rough-and-rowdy sheriff, a gold prospector and a schoolmarm.

“The response was overwhelmingly positive from our guests,” Mangelsdorf said.

The park would feature interactive exhibits, entertainment, food and crafts from the various cultures, including Native American, Mexican, Spanish, Anglo, African, Asian, Mormon and Jewish, the park’s announcement said.

It’s an exciting concept because Western heritage and culture always has been a part of the park, Moulton said, but the new plan would create a visitor experience in true history rather than in Hollywood movies.

Columbia Pictures built Old Tucson Studios, 201 S. Kinney Road, in 1939, and it was the set for about 300 western movies and other productions. Now the property is owned by Pima County and leased to Old Tucson Co., with a contract that requires Old Tucson to be open at least 150 days a year.

Attendance at Old Tucson Studios fell sharply after an arson fire in 1995 destroyed about 60 percent of its buildings, wardrobes and movie memorabilia.

The park was rebuilt and reopened in 1997, but attendance dropped again in the nationwide tourism decline after 2001.

Park attendance was about 190,000 last year, but it is expected to increase by up to 70,000 visitors at the end of a five- to 10-year plan to expand the park, Mangelsdorf said.

The foundation is using the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum as a model for its business side and Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg as a model for its programming, he said.

The foundation, which plans to hire a development director in the next few months, also is establishing relationships with the University of Arizona and the Arizona Historical Society.

Historical re-enactment groups said they are excited about the possibility of a new venue and said demand for such programming is healthy.

“The public is thirsty for reaching back in time and connecting and learning about the past,” said Randy Madsen, a member of the Pima County Historical Commission and an organizer of the Tucson Mormon Heritage Festival.

Re-enactments help people appreciate and understand different cultural histories, he said. He became interested in 1840s history because an ancestor served in Kearny’s Army of the West, Mormon Battalion, which marched through Tucson on its way from Iowa to California. Madsen now participates in re-enactments.

Gilbert Alonzo, a member of the Arizona Civil War Council, said his re-enactment group mostly uses state parks but it would be “a great idea” to have a large venue in Tucson.

The Civil War battle re-enactment at Picacho Peak State Park draws thousands of spectators, he said. Plus, members give talks at schools about what life was like for a Civil War soldier, including a look at the weapons and uniforms, and a taste of the food they would have eaten.

“It’s not just dates in a book,” Alonzo said, “It’s bringing it to life for them.”

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 573-4251. On Twitter: @BeckyPallack