PHOENIX — The Copper Corridor, along State Routes 77 and 177, is dotted with small and historic mining towns, some of which are stuck with abandoned or crumbling infrastructure but without money or room to expand or resolve such eyesores.
“Blight happens when you have one building in downtown and all of a sudden no resources to take care of it,” said Mila Besich, mayor of Superior. “Infill development is critical for our communities.”
During a discussion earlier this month about “urban blight” and issues around abandoned buildings and brownfields, state Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, highlighted success stories in his region, Legislative District 8, which includes Copper Corridor cities as well as Coolidge and Florence. While he cautioned against “overreach” by the government, Shope also made several suggestions including creating a vacant building registry that cities and towns could use as a first step.
“The district I represent is a cross-section of hypergrowth and no growth,” Shope said. “These problems have existed in the Copper Corridor for many years but they’re also in almost every community across Arizona.”
Shope noted his hometown of Coolidge, where his father was mayor for 16 years, has had issues over the years with empty buildings in the downtown area. In the near future, a new Pinal Hispanic Council office will be built at the site of the old Cohen’s Department Store, while the old Shorty’s bar is planning to reopen as a wine bar.
Besich said both her city and nearby Globe are thriving right now due to both local leadership and help from state agencies.
Besich cited the example of Superior’s historic Belmont Hotel, which was owned by the city but had issues with asbestos and mold that prevented its use. Within two years of a Phase 1 Assessment, the building was cleaned up and sold to someone planning to reopen the building as a community center and Airbnb.
Both Besich and Shope said smaller cities didn’t have resources for options such as condemnation or eminent domain.
“My colleagues will oftentimes ask: You guys have the power to condemn,” Shope said. “Why aren’t city leaders using the tools in their toolbox? It’s a very expensive tool!”
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Brownfields Coordinator Travis Barnum was the third speaker on the panel.
Barnum explained how the state’s brownfields grant program works and cited a recent case in Jerome, where the upper floors of a former hotel were layered with “bat guano” and lead paint but were cleaned up to provide space for offices and living quarters.
Besich called Barnum a “superhero” and an “incredible resource” for helping her city remove asbestos and lead paint from the former Roosevelt elementary school.
“We couldn’t have gotten to where we are without ADEQ utilizing these programs,” Besich said.