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Residents confront weapons-testing developer at Graham Co. meeting
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Residents confront weapons-testing developer at Graham Co. meeting

KLONDYKE — Love at first sight, it wasn’t.

The first encounter between Ernie Mennes, the Scottsdale-based proponent of a nearby weapons-testing and first-responder training center, and his prospective neighbors was a series of verbal confrontations. Increasingly bitter arguments between the speaker and the crowd, which accepted nothing that Mennes said, forced the meeting to a halt before Mennes could finish his presentation.

The backdrop for the session was a 108-year-old, one-room schoolhouse with wooden floors — where beef burritos were being served at a potluck — that lies about 10 miles south of the cottonwood trees and flowing water of the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness. It took place in the virtually undeveloped village of Klondyke, lying a few miles from the Cross F Ranch, which would be the site of the testing facility.

There, Force Options 360 Tactical Training LLC hopes to develop a center for training policemen, firefighters, SWAT crews and border security guards, and for testing and research of small-caliber weapons and weapons parts for the defense and aerospace industries. The Graham County Planning and Zoning Commission delayed until Sept. 16 its vote on the company’s request for a special permit to operate the proposed site.

Mennes, the company’s managing member, tried for about 90 minutes Saturday night to convince roughly 50 Klondyke-area residents that he is looking out for their best interests. He said he didn’t want to test propellants, explosives and other materials that would hurt the environment and that he cares deeply about cattle ranching.

To illustrate his plan, Mennes drew horizontal lines across a triangle on a piece of paper to separate various segments of the state’s defense and aerospace industries. The largest area set off by the lines was in the middle of the triangle, which he said would include the largest slice of the industry. It would include the testing of components for space vehicles, commercial aircraft, rockets and missiles — which he said comprises the largest single segment of the approximately 1,200 defense and aerospace industry companies in this state.

“What I can stand up and tell you is that the most important industry in the state of Arizona is aerospace and defense,” he said.

He said he is a firm supporter of smart growth and of private-property rights. He sought to assure residents that he’s not going to be testing cruise missiles or shooting machine guns out of helicopters out in the open range next to the federally owned wilderness area.

“But I think every single person in this room would support a public-safety center that promotes training, education and degree-granting certification in our community,” said the bespectacled Mennes, who wore blue jeans and a light blue dress shirt for the highly informal setting.

“We don’t support it,” countered someone in the crowd, which sat along several rows of metal tables directly across from Mennes. “Your answer is wrong.”

“What exactly are you going to be testing?” asked another resident, adding, “We don’t know what’s going to happen out here.”

“You have to understand that we don’t want you here,” a third audience member said, citing concerns about the impact on traffic, noise and wildlife.

“You think you’ve got a bunch of uneducated hillbillies out here,” resident John Stoddard said. “What you don’t know is that you’ve got the smartest people you’ve ever met. … If you really cared about this community, you would have had this meeting first before any others. For three to five months, we heard the rumors, but nobody tells us anything.”

Mennes replied that what he was doing was creating revenues for the community and making improvements to an aging ranch property.

“What you’re going to do is to create a lot more dust on the roads with lead-contaminated soils, and we eat that dust,” a resident replied.

The village of Klondyke has seen better economic times. It was a mining town a century ago, with as many as 500 people who took gold, copper, lead and molybdenum out of nearby hills.

That ended when the mines closed in the mid-20th century. Today, the town’s only store has stood closed for six or seven years. The school no longer holds classes — only public meetings such as this one.

About 55 registered voters live in the area, said John Franzone, president of the Klondyke School Board, which remains in existence despite the lack of students because residents want to preserve the board for when longtime residents’ grandchildren start to appear.

But longtime residents Lori Sollers and Kathy Sergent told Mennes that this land and its wildlife remain precious.

“For you, it’s about making money. For us, it’s where we live,” Sergent said.

“You can’t buy this,” Sollers added.

Afterward, Karen Kelley, a Klondyke resident since 2008, said Mennes “kept talking in circles, going around things. When someone asked a question that he didn’t like, he went to someone else. I think he’s too much of a salesman.”

But Anna Magoffin of the Klondyke area said Mennes was interrupted so many times that “I don’t think he got close to saying what he wanted to say. I didn’t get to hear what I wanted to hear.”

Resident Mark Proffitt said he supports the project, adding that Mennes wants to rebuild the aging ranch property and get it into good condition. “It hasn’t been improved in 20 years. He’s going to fence it where the fences were built poorly, and he’s going to rebuild pipelines that water it,” he said.

But Mark Haberstich, who manages an Aravaipa Canyon preserve for the Nature Conservancy, said, “We know it’s going to be bad, but we don’t know how bad.”

With Cross F lying between the Aravaipa and Santa Teresa wilderness areas, a military-style development could block wildlife movement, he said. Over 10 years, the conservancy and state and federal agencies have formulated a management plan for the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness that, for instance, considers low-density housing on adjoining private land compatible.

“But military testing — that kind of thing is not on the table,” he said. “For the developers, it’s attractive as a remote area, but that’s the same thing that makes it important to us.”

Summing up his audience, Mennes said after the meeting, “They’re passionate. I admire that. I love them dearly.”

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746. On Twitter: tonydavis987


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