Drive around Arizona long enough and you’ll inevitably come across a community that just exists to sell cheap houses. There’s nothing wrong with a cheap house, of course, but drive around a bit and you won’t find a lot of energy coursing through those streets.
Without a lot of effort, Maricopa could have seen that fate, had it not been the concerted effort to bring in amenities to make it stand out from the rest. And chief among those is Copper Sky Regional Park.
Maricopa was only six years old as a city when its residents were asked to vote on a $65 million bond to fund improvements to the city’s parks and recreation. At that point, they already had Pacana Park to enjoy, and it was a favorite for families and athletes alike. But the city was just growing too fast, and it was becoming clear that Pacana wasn’t going to hold up as Maricopa’s premier park.
The voters seemed to agree. Even though the Great Recession was just hitting the world, and Maricopa especially, they committed their tax money to the idea of creating a crown jewel for the city to showcase to the entire state.
Christian Price, who wasn’t mayor when the bond passed but was as the park was being built, said the lesson for governments as bonds like these fail more often than not in recent years is to make sure voters know exactly what they are going to get. And they knew if they committed their money to this bond, they were going to get a great park.
He compared, for example, Pinal County’s Proposition 469, which just narrowly failed to fund major road projects, to Maricopa County’s Prop. 400 that passed in 2004 to fund freeways for the next 20 years. In Maricopa County, each voter got the sense that they were going to get something out of it, whereas in Pinal County only certain areas thought they’d see their lives improve. In those places, like Maricopa, the voters approved it. But in more places, they didn’t see the point and rejected it.
When it came to Copper Sky, Price said, voters thought to themselves, “‘I live in this great community, I want it to be better, and we need more things to do.’ The people said we want this and we want to pay for it.
“You have to educate them on what they’re paying for and how they’re going to get it,” Price said.
Now with $65 million at their disposal, the city had to figure out what to do with it, which turned out to be harder than it seems. The first was finding the land. Price said the city got a “smoking deal” on 120 acres that were in the floodplain. That meant spending money to get it out of the floodplain, but the city had its spot secured.
Then it came to what the park would look like. When a bond passes, there is a very specific set of things the money can be used on. In this case, it was to build new recreation facilities, whether it be parks, pools, fitness centers or libraries.
More important is what that money can’t be used for. Not one dollar of that $65 million can be spent on the maintenance of the facilities that were constructed or on the wages of the people who are necessary to staff them. When deciding what will be included in Copper Sky, that became a big deal because they had to prioritize services that wouldn’t add a lot to its maintenance and staffing bills.
“It’s one thing to build a park, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing to maintain it,” said Price, who had his eyes on including racketball courts only to realize that this would require a lot of air-conditioned space to make it unfeasible for the number of people who would actually use it.
So the city brought a bunch of people together, including the Youth Council, to figure out the priorities for the park. They used a process called “dot polling” where everyone had five dots to place among the many different options, and those options were then sorted by the number of dots. The city then took that list and determined how much each would cost.
“It was a lot of fun, but it took a lot of time,” Price said. “People got angry wondering where everything is, but we told them we have to make sure we’re doing this right.”
Some things were more likely to pay for themselves than others. The fields, for example, needed a lot of money because they needed to meet certain standards in order to bring in major youth sports tournaments that would then bring that money back in, and more. That then becomes the money that pays for the maintenance and staffing.
The other big decision was to save plenty of frontage road space for mixed and commercial use. They have already been able to reap those rewards after La Quinta purchased some of that land to build a hotel. That money goes toward paying off the debt from the bonds.
And an even bigger fish is potentially coming with the Maricopa Innovation Campus, which would take over the land currently used for the dog park and some soccer fields. Not only will that bring in some significant revenue, but the developers will need to build equivalent fields somewhere else in the city before they use up that space.
But above all, Copper Sky had to look special. Price said some wanted the park to be built in phases, with the city “eventually getting around” to the second half of it. But Price saw that Ak-Chin Indian Community was going with its hotel, casino and entertainment district, almost across the street from where they were building, and he knew it wouldn’t be a mediocre park.
The result is what hundreds of Maricopans now enjoy every day, with a multi-story fitness center, a competition-level aquatic center, top-tier Little League fields, a skate park, courts for almost every sport imaginable, a beautiful lake and plenty of green space.
Price remembers when it opened on March 15, 2014, when they held a grand opening, and it was one of the coldest days in Maricopa. But hundreds if not thousands of people showed up to walk around the facility.
“I just remember so many smiling faces, and thinking this is a new dawn for the city of Maricopa. It really established us as a city that’s here to stay,” Price said. “It’s the park itself that kind of mesmerizes me the most. Every time I go there, and I go there a lot, there’s always something new.”