By Christy Krueger –
Safety, Education, Quality of Life for 25 Years
As the Town of Sahuarita celebrates its 25th birthday this year, its leaders have big dreams for the area’s future growth and its role as a significant contributor to the region’s economic sustainability. At the same time, leaders understand that growth should be planned and controlled – and they’re particularly committed to including community feedback in their decisions.
Residents’ needs and wants, maintaining the quality of life and supporting the town’s award-winning school programs all are important considerations moving into the future, the town’s leaders say, as are attention to the growing job market, the health of small businesses and relationships with major industries of the area.
Sahuarita has had significant growth in a relatively short amount of time. Mayor Tom Murphy said that when the town was incorporated in 1994, it had 1,800 residents. The population now is more than 30,000, with 6,500 students in its schools. Murphy envisions a population of 40,000 to 45,000 in the not-too-distant future. He also understands that growth can be a challenge.
Issues such as safety, schools, parks, jobs, housing and retaining current residents are all tied to growth and attaining a strong economy. One of the biggest attributes of the town, said Murphy, is safety.
“We start with a safe community,” Murphy said. “Safety-wise, we’re in the top five in the state. Our police department even has drones.” Murphy said Sahuarita is the first such department in the state to have them.
In 2018, the town conducted a citizen survey to gauge residents’ opinions of the community, its amenities, government, businesses and a wide range of other topics. One glaring request was for more restaurants and shops, and, according to Victor Gonzalez, Sahuarita’s economic development director, residents want chains. While there are a variety of home-grown businesses, such as Mama’s Hawaiian Bar-B-Cue and Cathey’s Sewing and Vacuum, the townspeople also like their TJ Maxx and Starbucks.
National chains, of course, want to see towns with an increasing population. Towns want to bring in chains to attract homebuyers, add to the tax base and increase the number of jobs close to home. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
Education is also a big plus in Sahuarita. With the average age of residents at 34 years old, potential homebuyers look closely at the schools, of which there are nine in the Sahuarita Unified School District. “K-12 education needs to be well-rounded,” Murphy said. “We offer German, Mandarin and Chinese in our schools, with a Junior ROTC top program. Families look for these.”
He also identifies the amenity-rich master-planned communities as being greatly responsible for putting Sahuarita on the map. “There’s Madera Highlands, Quail Creek and Rancho Sahuarita, the most affordable and highly amenitized. All have different demographics.”
Part of the town’s growth plan includes adding facilities and programs desired by existing families. According to Gonzalez, that includes public gathering spaces – such as a plaza, performance area and splash pads. The goal is to create a “Main Street” near the town center that could also include office space, a hotel, a civic center, multi-family housing and other mixed-use developments.
Murphy envisions it as a central area with grass, a place that can hold more people than what the town currently has. “This would bring different neighborhoods together,” he said. “It’s important to weave together different parts of our community.”
Another issue to come out of the citizen survey is the need for more nighttime entertainment – which would likely be part of the Town Center District – although Town Manager Kelly Udall points out that the town isn’t completely void of such activities now. It has a monthly concert series by the lake and large annual celebrations such as the Fourth of July Red, White and Boom fireworks display, the spring Fiesta Sahuarita and the Winter Festival and Holiday Light Parade.
Fiesta Sahuarita, which is presented by the Town of Sahuarita, brings families together for a day of fun, activities, games, rides, food and more. This small-town festival is held in Anamax Park each year in March. Local entertainment and live music performs on the mobile stage, and organizations throughout the region provide opportunities for local and new residents to discover their community.
Another popular event is the annual Sahuarita Pecan Festival, which attracts 20,000 neighbors and visitors each fall. Held on the Green Valley Pecan Company grounds, the family-friendly experience offers wagon rides into the pecan groves, music, food, vendors, demonstrations and a kids’ area. “The overall feel of the event endears our community to the Town of Sahuarita,” Udall said. “The Waldens put that on. We coordinate with our police department and parks and rec.”
Offering more social events isn’t simply a request by residents, it’s a part of what keeps the town cohesive and attracts new homebuyers, Udall said. “We have events that have a small-town feel. It’s very important to us to foster the small-town feel where people know each other and enjoy cultural events. It’s critical for what we’re trying to create.”
From an employment standpoint, residents work at Sahuarita’s large employers, including the town itself, its booming school district, Freeport-McMoRan and ASARCO mines, Farmers Investment Company (parent organization of Green Valley Pecan Company) and retailers such as Walmart. Other large companies nearby include Caterpillar and Komatsu, both of which operate proving grounds west of Interstate 19.
Sahuarita residents also make the commute to work for major employers on Tucson’s southside, approximately a 20- to 30-minute drive, including Raytheon Missile Systems, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and Tucson International Airport. “Amazon is another business whose employees will live here,” Murphy said. He refers to the town as a “bedroom community” because folks feel that the quality of life in Sahuarita more than makes up for commuting to work.
Yet town leaders realize a larger number of local employers are needed to attract the growth they envision. They have created a town master plan and economic-development blueprints. Udall believes workforce development is an important segment of the strategy and that includes recruiting and retaining businesses.
“I expect to see 500 to 600 new jobs in the next several years,” Gonzalez said, from projects currently in the works and indirect jobs emanating from those projects.
Gonzalez explained that while the Sahuarita area has sustained largely on mining and agriculture, diversification is necessary for the town’s longterm economic health. Targeting industries like technology and professional services, which are predicted to bring in future jobs, is a step of the town’s strategy that has already begun.
West of I-19, the planned Sahuarita Advanced Manufacturing and Technology Center, known as SAMTEC, is expected to attract high-tech companies and already has a number of prospects. Northwest Healthcare is planning an 18-bed neighborhood hospital with approximately 180 employees making an average annual salary of $50,000. Construction is anticipated to begin in early 2019.
Sahuarita folks have much to look forward to this year with its 25th-anniversary celebration. “We’ll have an event each month for 2019, some larger than others,” Udall said. “All will call attention to the anniversary. In January we’ll have an open house at Town Hall where people can talk to elected and appointed officials. I’d like a farmers’ market at Phase I of where the district will be, near La Villita Road. We’ll have a calendar of all activities.”
The mayor, with his always-optimistic outlook, is passionate about Sahuarita being a special and unique place for its residents as seen in his frequent use of the word “love” when describing the town and its people: “We love our active residents, we love our schools, we love our law enforcement.”