First came a plan to save a historic school.
Then an idea to restore a crumbling town square.
Now a group of artists and conservationists in Ajo is turning the former copper mining town into an arts and culture tourism destination.
“We’re creating something that Ajo needs badly,” said Tracy Taft, former executive director of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, which is spearheading a multipronged project to bring artists and arts events to Pima County’s far-flung town. “Ajo’s only hope for becoming really a flourishing town again is that kind of niche tourism.”
Since conceiving their plans in 2001, the alliance has invested nearly $10 million into buying and restoring the nearly 100-year-old Curley School, converting the main Spanish colonial-style building into low-income artists housing and creating a conference center and inn from the remaining classrooms and buildings. They are about halfway through renovating the nearby Ajo Plaza that dates to 1917, bringing in new tenants including government offices, a county library, an art gallery, gift shop and café. The plaza’s second floor is leased to artists for studio space.
“It’s restoring a historic architectural aspect and center of the town,” said Andrew Sisk, the outgoing executive director of the Ajo District Chamber of Commerce. “Keeping that center alive and encouraging new businesses to come in is something I am enthusiastic about and the chamber supports.”
The 31-unit Curley School Artisan Apartments opened in 2007 and the Sonoran Desert Conference Center and inn opened in spring 2015. In 18 months since, it has hosted large conferences, business retreats, weddings, funerals and reunions.
“People come back to be buried here,” said the conference center’s director, Stuart Siegel, recalling a funeral of a former school employee whose family said “it was more meaningful for him to have his funeral at the school than at a church.”
The conference center’s primary objective, though, is to attract more conventions and large groups to town that would not normally come. The idea is that the larger groups will fill the center’s rooms and the overflow from those groups will use other Ajo hotels.
“Our goal has always been that all-boats-rise approach,” said Aaron Cooper, the alliance’s executive director.
Ajo, sandwiched between the Tohono O’odham Nation and Mexico and just over two hours drive from Tucson, has been in economic decline since the New Cornelia open-pit copper mine shuttered in 1983 when the price of copper dropped. Nearly half of the town’s 5,200 residents fled. The population today is about 3,700 when you count the winter visitors, said the chamber’s Sisk.
The unincorporated Pima County town’s economic drivers today include a heavy presence of Border Patrol agents and retirees like Taft, who moved to Ajo in late 2000 from the East Coast where she had worked in community development.
“I was driving through town in 1992 and I fell in love with it,” said Taft, who bought a $20,000 former miner’s home and spent part of the winters in Ajo for nearly a decade before her move.
Taft said that when she arrived in Ajo, residents were starting to rehab the town’s housing stock, mostly small miners bungalows that dated to the early 1930s near the mine and dotting downtown around the Ajo Plaza.
But the residents weren’t reaching much beyond the neighborhoods, Taft said. They didn’t have the financial means or experience, which is where the International Sonoran Desert Alliance came in. The nonprofit had the experience of taking on big projects and getting public and private funding.
Before the alliance kicked into action, Ajo’s only option for large gatherings was the school gym.
“Our hope is to continue to build destination cultural tourism and ecotourism. In order to drive that, we really required a beautiful conference center and hotel,” said Taft, who was the alliance’s executive director for several years before recently stepping aside.
The conference center, with its large meeting rooms, on-site commercial kitchen with catering services, sprawling courtyard with community gardens, 21 spacious guest rooms and a dorm that can sleep up to 12 in bunk beds, allows Ajo to sell itself as a convention and major-events destination.
Since it opened, the center has hosted events ranging from business retreats to large community and private conferences. Last March, representatives from the Tohono O’odham Nation, Mexico and the United States took part in the fourth Tri-National Sonoran Desert Symposium focusing on the region’s cultural and natural resources. Next March, the center will host the biannual Community Arts Gathering to explore community art on a broader national and international scale.
Siegel said he also would like to develop an artists residence program at the center to complement the Curley School, where artists reside for six months or more. Siegel envisions shorter-term arrangements for the center’s program, which would give artists the opportunity to work on their art in relative solitude and make use of the center’s wood shop and clay studio.
Siegel and his wife, Emily, have lived in Ajo almost two years. The pair discovered the town in early 2015 at the tail-end of a yearlong trek across America when they “quit their lives and hit the road.” Both left jobs in New England and spent a year exploring the country.
Halfway into their journey, they began daydreaming about one day opening some sort of artists retreat. When they arrived in Ajo to visit a friend, work was underway at the Sonoran Desert Conference Center. Their friend gave them a tour. It embodied a lot of what they had imagined one day opening.
The couple spent six weeks in early 2015 volunteering at the center before it opened. That spring, Taft offered them the job of running the center when it opened in March 2015. One of the center’s first big events was the Siegels’ wedding.
In its first 18 months, the center also has welcomed foreign travelers, former Ajo residents curious to see how their old school was renovated and people in town for special events, including a couple who recently stayed at the inn to attend their daughter’s wedding then ended up moving to Ajo.
“Our combination of being in the middle of natural beauty and being within walking distance of downtown brings people into town as a tourist destination in our own right,” Seigel said. “People want to come and stay with us and relax and enjoy the facility. People ... wander around and they end up meeting someone from the Curley School Apartments and they see their art and some buy the art.”
The property had 30 percent occupancy when it reopened Thursday after a monthlong summer hiatus, during which the Siegels celebrated the birth of their first child. But on a hot day in July, the only guests on the property were families from Tucson whose kids were competing in an Ajo Desert Sharks swim meet at Pima County’s Ajo pool.
Siegel led several of the guests on a tour of the facility, showing off former classrooms that had been remodeled into guest rooms with double queen size beds and clean modern lines throughout. Material from the old school has been repurposed in the design, including in the rooms’ lighting fixtures. Telltale signs of the building’s past were retained, including the yellow half-circles painted on the walkway outside each classroom that alerted students which way the door swung.
The inn offers guests free Wi-Fi, which can be spotty at times. There is no pool. There are no TVs, and Siegel said they probably will resist the urge to get them. The idea is to disconnect from the everyday world and appreciate the natural beauty of vast swaths of desert and wildlife. It’s not uncommon to see javelina and deer wander down from the surrounding mountains near the open pit mine and nibble on brush near the neighborhoods.
“This really is a retreat,” said Amy Ruiz, president of the Marana Marlins parents board, whose swim team was among those guests on that July weekend. “Stuart is just an amazing ambassador for what they are doing. ... I’m sure we’re not his typical group, but he was very accommodating and ... he took us on tours and showed us what they were trying to do.”
Taft said the International Sonoran Desert Alliance is continuing to strengthen Ajo’s cultural tourism assets, including the Ajo Plaza, which the group bought for just shy of $2 million in 2008. Work on the plaza is ongoing; it’s about halfway completed. But the alliance didn’t wait to begin creating arts-inclined reasons for people to come to the plaza from Ajo and beyond.
In the six years since it bought the property and began renovations, the group has increased the number of community festivals in the plaza from two that first year to 46 this year, including the 13th annual tri-cultural International Day of Peace from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, featuring performances by Tohono O’odham Waila bands, American rock bands and Mexican bands, Representatives from all three nations will participate in flag ceremonies. Next March, the conference center will host the biannual Community Arts Gathering with artists from the three nations.
“They are turning a depressed mining town into what is becoming a vibrant ... cultural mecca” and tourism destination, said Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson, whose district includes Ajo. “It’s putting Ajo on the map in a very different way. In challenging economic times, they are reinventing themselves.”
“This is a town with great bones that’s had hard times because the mines closed,” Siegel said. “Now we’re bringing people back.”