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Old Tucson announces 'indefinite' closure; Pima County to decide park's future
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Old Tucson announces 'indefinite' closure; Pima County to decide park's future

Old Tucson Studios has been a landmark in Pima County, with more than 400 movies and commercial videos having been filmed there

Visitors pass the Grand Palace Hotel at Old Tucson, 201 S. Kinney Road. Pima County announced the attraction has been indefinitely closed and it will begin working on a plan for its future.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with additional information regarding the closure from Old Tucson.

Old Tucson, the Western-themed attraction that was the filming location of more than 400 feature-films and TV shows, is extending its closure indefinitely, with its future to be determined by Pima County.

The decision to close the Arizona landmark "was made with a heavy heart," according to Old Tucson general manager Terry Verhage, who said in a Tuesday news release that the theme park would have remained in business "if not for the COVID-19 pandemic."

“We know how important Old Tucson is to our community, guests and employees,” he said. “We did everything possible to keep our loyal fans safe when we were open, but the ongoing COVID-19 public health protocols and restrictions limited park attendance to the point where Old Tucson could no longer stay in business.”

Pima County will take over responsibility for the theme park on Sept. 14 and "will seek ideas from potential operators and lessors about what Old Tucson could be in the future," the news release said.

“Old Tucson is a cultural and historic icon, not only for Pima County and Arizona, but for the country. A huge part of our nation’s film history is embedded in the land and scenic vistas of the Tucson Mountains. Whatever the park’s future may be, the county will endeavor to preserve and honor that history,” said Ramón Valadez, chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

The county owns the land for the park west of Tucson and leases it to Old Tucson Company for the attraction. The lease agreement, which was initially entered into in 1973, was last amended in 2003 and runs through 2023, stipulates that Old Tucson would pay the county a minimum of $50,000 annually in rent and remain open a minimum of 150 days a year, according to the contract.

Old Tucson Company, owned by Tucson's Levy and Pitt families, had been making its lease payments until the county paused leases on all its properties during the pandemic, according to chief deputy county administrator Jan Lesher. She added that the county supervisors have to vote to terminate the contract.

She acknowledged that revenue and attendance at Old Tucson had been waning over the previous years, but that Old Tucson had managed to adapt with new events and upscale dining, as well as their Zip Line. But this year was just too much to overcome, she said.

Asked what the future might hold for Old Tucson, Lesher said it's too early to tell, but that the county would like to occupy the space with something that stays true to the surrounding desert and mountains, but also compliments the nearby Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. She estimated that they'll have a better idea in 8-10 months.

"Theme parks today are not what they are today as they were 50 years ago," she said, adding that the county will provide minimal staff for security and to maintain the grounds. "What we do needs to be forever. I don't know what that is going to look like yet but I bet there are people out there with some good ideas."

Old Tucson's murky future marks a potential final moment in the up-and-down history of the site that has been a signature spot in Tucson for more than eight decades.

Originally built in 1939, the location, down Gates Pass and nestled adjacent to the Tucson Mountains, was used to film some of the most well-known Western movies of the next several decades, including Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Rio Bravo, El Dorado, Three Amigos, as well as the TV series Little House on the Prairie. Among the actors to walk its roads include John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Gene Autry, Kurt Russell and Sharon Stone.

The site was expanded to a tourist spot in the 1960s.

It suffered its first big blow three decades later, when more than 40 buildings in the 360-acre park were destroyed in a 1995 fire, causing an estimated $10 million in damage, with fire officials determining the cause to be arson. It remained closed until 1997, after more than 200 workers helped rebuild 16 structures and install fire hydrants in the park.

Despite its reopening, Old Tucson's financial struggles started in the new millennium, spurned mostly the nationwide tourism decline and the Great Recession, but also when filming at the site nearly seized completely after changes in state laws eliminated support for filming in Arizona and increased operational costs.

Then came the pandemic, with much of Old Tucson remaining closed since Memorial Day due to local restrictions necessitated by efforts to curb the spread of the virus. Old Tucson recently had announced the cancellation of its signature event, Nightfall, which drew more than 34,000 last year and helps cover operational costs throughout the year.

Old Tucson did receive a loan of between $150,000 and $350,000 through the federal paycheck protection program that was used to save 26 jobs, records show.

But as a result of Tuesday's closure, 8 full-time employees and 136 seasonal, part-time or on-call employees have been laid off, according to spokeswoman Linda Welter.

Even with its recent financial troubles, Diane Frisch, Pima County Attractions and Tourism Office Director, said the county "has a responsibility to maintain and protect this valuable asset."

“Old Tucson was and has the potential to still be an important contributor to the regional tourist economy," she said in a statement.

Contact reporter Justin Sayers atjsayers1@tucson.comor 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.

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