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COVID surge causes temporary closure of area schools due to staffing shortages
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CASA GRANDE — While the rapid spread of COVID has reignited the debate about children’s health and learning options, the COVID rate among adults at schools around the country has caused staffing shortages that have forced closures.

On Tuesday Villago Middle School sent a letter to parents announcing it would be switching immediately to remote learning until at least Jan. 24, in part due to 14 staff members absent due to COVID. The school also cited 198 student absences and 12 active COVID cases.

“At this time, due to our COVID staffing absences, we cannot effectively host in-person learning,” the statement from Villago Principal Jeff Lavender reads. “We want to make sure that our students are still learning while home and getting the instruction they need to be successful.”

During the remote learning period, students will be getting at least 70 minutes of direct instruction with teachers via Zoom, during which attendance will be noted.

Later on Tuesday, Cactus Middle School followed suit with an announcement to its families. While the school did not list the number of COVID cases in the letter, the school confirmed that staffing shortages were forcing a switch to remote learning until Jan. 24.

In a letter sent to families on Jan. 12 CGESD leaders further clarified the situation, citing a teacher and staff shortage with 70 open positions within the district unfilled. The letter said that 82 percent of COVID staff absences could not be filled, leading to the need to switch to remote learning.

Meals for the district are available to be picked up from 4-6 p.m. at Cottonwood Elementary School.

Elsewhere in the region, the Eloy Elementary School District announced on Tuesday that it too was switching to remote learning within all district schools, until Jan. 18. The Eloy district letter said 21 staff members had tested positive for COVID and 345 students were quarantining.

All of this comes a day after Casa Grande Elementary’s Early Childhood Learning Center preschool announced a weeklong closure, which was the first school in the area to do so.

Meanwhile, the Casa Grande Union High School District had a board meeting on Tuesday evening during which the administration said it was monitoring the situation but was not switching to remote learning as of yet.

“We won’t minimize the complexity of what is happening in our environment,” said CGUHSD Superintendent Anna Battle. “I assure you and the board we are doing everything we can to ensure that we do not compromise the learning experience, if we have to pivot to accommodate staff.”

The Santa Cruz Valley Union High School District is also taking a wait and see approach but recommending facial coverings.

“We are strongly encouraging masks, but we are not requiring them,” SCVUHSD Superintendent Orlenda Roberts said. “We are also strongly encouraging both staff and students to get vaccinated. However, there is no requirement. I want to educate our kids and try to keep everyone as safe as possible.”

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Pinal economic efforts have momentum in new year
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FLORENCE — Pinal County’s first new economic and workforce development director in 11 years believes the county has good momentum heading into the new year.

“Pinal County is really kind of at the cutting edge of many of the things we’re seeing in the news,” James Smith told PinalCentral. “There’s definitely a move toward electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and I think the state has positioned us well for that. You’ve seen the testing that has happened in the East Valley for a number of years with some of the autonomous vehicle companies.

“We’re seeing more of a move from our federal government to encourage electric vehicles. Certainly with Lucid we’re in a good position for that. So we’re producing these goods. I think also you’re seeing a need for more building supplies. … All of those things are being produced here in Pinal County.”

Smith said the business-friendly environment is one of the reasons that drew him to Pinal County. “Each of the cities has been really open to opportunities and discussions. The leadership of the cities I have met with, they’re really trying to grow their areas and do it smartly.

“The county manager and the supervisors, I know are very interested in economic development and growing Pinal County. The manager has been very aggressive in terms of trying to make these deals work. So that has been really a strong positive, and something we go into the new year with a really good momentum.”

Smith’s predecessor, the late Tim Kanavel, began the concept of a “Tech Corridor” of industry clusters running through Pinal County between Arizona State University and University of Arizona. Smith said he’d like to follow through with it.

“One of the things I’d really like to do is to continue to build upon the success in the automotive industry. I’d really like to grow (the supply chain), and market that as a real success of the county. And making this a real hub for electric, hydrogen and autonomous vehicle manufacturing and all of the supply chain that goes along with that.”

With Pinal’s existing technology companies and availability of transportation, land and room to develop, “I think it definitely lends itself to being a technology corridor, and in a sense, filling in the gaps between those two areas.”

San Tan Valley

Smith, who previously was economic development director in Fountain Hills and before that worked for the city of Chandler, lived in San Tan Valley for about seven years and is well acquainted with its challenges of being a densely populated, unincorporated area with too-few jobs and amenities.

“I think there’s some good news. While we would certainly like to have more employment for those folks in Pinal County and in proximity to San Tan Valley, what’s happening at the Mesa Gateway Airport is very encouraging. My hope is as that area continues to fill in and there’s more employment in that area, maybe there’s a spillover that comes into Apache Junction and the Queen Creek portion of Pinal County.

“One of the things in talking with Supervisor Mike Goodman’s office, we will be looking at the retail and the services in that area and seeing what we can maybe do to bring some more of those desired amenities” and keep more sales tax dollars in Pinal County, Smith said. But it’s head-of-household jobs, or what Smith calls “base industry jobs,” that will “really create the whole economy.”

When people earn a good wage, “they tend to buy homes, they consume more, so you see more retail come to those areas. By creating those base industry jobs, we really kind of grow the economy from there, with homes, retail and all those other service industries.

“… One of the positives is the relationship with the community college and their ability to train the workforce and their willingness to partner with the county and these companies to ensure their workforce is ready to go. I think that’s a great partnership and it’s certainly attractive to companies that are looking at the area.”

Strategic location

Pinal has a natural economic development strength where it sits between the state’s two major metro areas, with good roadway and air travel infrastructure and the ability to attract employees from the metro areas, Smith said.

Another advantage is all the people interested in coming to Arizona to visit or to live, he said, and he wants to help more of them discover Pinal County. “There’s so much natural beauty in this area. We talk a lot about the companies coming here, but I would really like to take tourism to another level … whether it’s hiking or other outdoor activities.”

If there’s a weakness, or perhaps an opportunity, it’s a lack of readily-available buildings, Smith said.

“There’s not a lot of available buildings that are ready to go for companies that want to make quick decisions. This may be a sense of giving these developers confidence that companies are looking at Pinal County, and there’s an opportunity for them to speculatively build buildings here. It really is often important to winning projects to have space that’s readily available.

“Sometimes in my career I’ve seen that you lose out to a building that is going to be delivered sooner than your location can deliver. Or if there’s a building that’s readily available, sometimes companies choose that location.” This is especially the case as companies face global supply chain issues, Smith said.

“Companies have always reacted quickly and have often had to make quick decisions. Right now, I think it’s vital that they can produce their goods, get their goods to market, all of those kinds of things. It’s really leading to quick decision processes and the need to respond quickly to the market.”

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Western Trading Post in CG sets possible record with recent auction
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CASA GRANDE — A downtown business may have set a world record during an auction on Saturday.

Western Trading Post, on Florence Street, sold a Lander Blue turquoise squash blossom jewelry set for $112,000, which auctioneer and store owner Jim Olson believes may be a world record for an item of its kind.

“We have researched results from the biggest auction houses, googled it and also looked at other auction results available to us,” Olson said. “We found no other squash blossom necklaces sold at an auction for anywhere near this amount. While we do know of a few gallery sales of squash blossoms selling in the six-figure range, we believe ours is the first one ever sold at a live auction for six figures.”

The jewelry set was made in the 1970s by an unknown Navajo craftsman using what’s now considered the rarest and most highly sought-after turquoise, Lander Blue, Olson said.

“The set passed through a couple of hands since the 1970s,” Olson said.

Included in the set are four pieces — a bracelet, ring, earrings and a squash blossom necklace.

“The necklace was consigned to Western Trading Post’s advanced collectors auction by a consignor from out of state,” Olson said. “We had been talking with them for a couple of months about selling it for them; then in November, they brought it to us for consignment.”

The seller found Western Trading Post because they handled the sale of a similar set in 2019, he said.

“They found that sale online, checked us out, then decided to start a dialog with us about selling it for them,” Olson said.

Bidding was brisk during the auction with several dealers and collectors participating. A collector of Lander Blue stones made the highest bid via the internet, securing the items.

“The primary value is the turquoise itself,” Olson said. “However, the purchaser told staff at Western Trading Post he liked the idea of it being set in a vintage sterling silver setting — that it added to the history.”

While the $112,000 bid was the largest auction-related sale for Western Trading Post, the business has sold other items with larger price tags.

“It is the largest sale for us through our auction process, but we have had a larger single sale than that through the gallery,” Olson said.

Other items that sold at the auction on Saturday were pistols, a rifle, a Navajo concho belt and a wool Navajo chief’s blanket.

“We had great buyer attendance from all over the country for this auction,” Olson said. “Over 550 bidders participated online and live with thousands more viewing the auction during the weeks prior.”


Jim and Bobbi Jeen Olson are photographed at their store, Western Trading Post, in Casa Grande.

Western Trading Post is an auction service and gallery that specializes in Western Americana, Native American collectibles and historic firearms.

Preserving and promoting the Western heritage is important to the Olson family. Jim, a former rodeo cowboy, has written several books and articles about the western lifestyle and cowboy lore. He manages the day-to-day activities at Western Trading Post.

His wife, Bobbi Jeen, is a professional actress, model and stunt woman who has been in dozens of western-theme movies, commercials and print work. Their son Rowdy is also involved with Western Trading Post along with Bobbi Jeen’s mother, Betty Whiteley.

Western Trading Post is also the subject of a reality television show on The Cowboy Channel and Great American Westerns.

“Western Trading Post TV,” is hosted by Jim and Bobbi Jeen Olson and focuses on the often rare and unique items that come into the store. The show is also about a close-knit family and the work they do.

Footage for the show was shot Saturday as the record-breaking bid was made.

“It will probably be in an episode later this year,” Olson said.