A1 A1
featured top story
CG council to consider upgrades to Florence Boulevard
  • Updated

CASA GRANDE — Casa Grande’s main thoroughfare could be getting a makeover.

At the next City Council meeting, scheduled for Monday, council members will consider awarding a contract to start Phase 1 of the “Florence Boulevard Streetscape Project.”

As part of the proposed agreement, J2 Engineering and Environmental Design LLC would provide initial design concepts for the entire boulevard, running from I-10 to Pinal Avenue.

City staff say the project “will enhance the image and quality of life for the city of Casa Grande” by incorporating new elements on the street including landscaping, signage and infrastructure such as additional parking “as a catalyst to the Florence Boulevard revitalization.”

Other notable items for discussion at the meeting will include a replatting of Central Arizona Commerce Park on the west side to accommodate a marijuana growing facility and adjusting the corner of Florence Boulevard and Brown Avenue for the KFC franchise.

Several items involve the city’s airport, including a possible environmental assessment to allow for skydiving and parachuting.

The council may also make final decisions on long-gestating projects like the first of several Super Star Car Wash franchises planned for the city and new standards in the zoning code to allow for construction of build-to-rent homes.

The meeting will take place in the council chambers in City Hall at 7 p.m.

featured top story
Lehman honored as 'Fire Chief of the Museum'
  • Updated

CASA GRANDE -- For more than 25 years, Gene Lehman has served as the honorary “Fire Chief of the Casa Grande Museum,” keeping a collection of antique trucks in excellent condition and regularly taking the trucks out for parades and events.

On Wednesday, The Museum of Casa Grande honored Lehman with a special tribute event recognizing and honoring his years of service.

“We wanted to thank him for all he’s done for the museum,” said Archivist Arlo Cairo. “Because of him, the museum’s fire trucks are kept in excellent condition.”

The Museum of Casa Grande has three antique fire trucks in its collection, including vehicles from 1928, 1941 and 1953.

For years, Lehman has kept them polished and shiny as well as in working order. He regularly takes the trucks out of the museum to show them off in parades, street fairs and various events.

“A lot of work goes into keeping these trucks in good shape,” said Arizona City firefighter Ernie Lopez, who also volunteers at the museum, helping to keep the trucks in peak condition. “It can be hard to find parts for the older trucks, so we do a lot of modifications when repairs are needed.”

Oscar Perez/PinalCentral (2017)  

Gene Lehman drives an antique fire truck in the 23rd annual Electric Light Parade in 2017 at Florence Boulevard and Florence Street.

Taking the trucks out of the museum for parades and events, then cleaning them off and putting them back inside the museum for display involves much work, Cairo said.

“The truck has to be cleaned, the fuel drained, the battery removed before it can be pushed back inside,” she said. “There’s a lot of work. But it’s worth it. People love seeing these antique fire trucks.”

As well as knowledge of the trucks, Lehman also brings a wealth of history and knowledge about the Casa Grande Fire Department to his volunteer work with the museum.

He spent more than 50 years working for the Casa Grande Fire Department, both as a volunteer and a part-time firefighter, retiring as a division chief.

Lehman moved to Casa Grande in 1955 when he was 23 years old. A Korean War veteran, he was fresh out of the Army and moved to Casa Grande to start a washing machine repair business.

He later became an appliance dealer.

In the 1950s, Lehman was one of the first live-in firefighters for the city’s new station on Florence Boulevard.

When he first started working as a firefighter, Lehman was paid only $3 per call no matter how long an incident lasted, according to a 2006 Casa Grande Dispatch article.

He became assistant chief in 1978. The job title was later changed to division chief. A part-timer, he led the department’s group of part-time firefighters until CGFD began using only full-time firefighters in 2005, according to the article.

Oscar Perez/PinalCentral 

Gene Lehman, left, is greeted by Arizona City Fire Capt. Ernie Lopez during a celebration in honor of Lehman Wednesday Sept. 15, 2021 at The Museum of Casa Grande's Heritage Hall. Lehman keeps the museum’s fire trucks in working condition and uses them in parades for the City Council to ride in. Lehman and Lopez worked together years ago at Casa Grande Fire Department.

Over the years, he amassed many stories and tales about the department and various fires and incidents in Casa Grande.

Some of Lehman’s stories were recorded in a book, “100 Years: A History of the Casa Grande Fire Department,” written by firefighter Brian Berry in 2015.

One chapter of the book is devoted to Lehman’s stories of close calls and near misses with death alongside the city’s first full-time firefighter, Bill White, a 2015 Casa Grande Dispatch article said.

One story in the book tells of an incident when Lehman and White accidentally blew up a silo and escaped harm by hiding underneath their fire truck, according to the article.

Cairo said The Museum of Casa Grande has dozens of photos and Casa Grande Dispatch articles on Lehman, documenting his contributions to the community and its history of firefighting.

“Over the years he’s done so much for the city and the museum,” she said.

During the Wednesday night event, he was officially given the honorary title of “Fire Chief of the Casa Grande Museum.”

spotlight featured top story
Homebuilding permits surging in county with Coolidge tops
  • Updated

COOLIDGE — Homebuilding permits in parts of Pinal County have been booming for the first six months of the year and beyond.

According to the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, Coolidge had the highest percentage growth of homebuilding permits for all of Maricopa and Pinal counties with a 258% increase over last year.

From January to July, Coolidge homebuilding permits increased from 128 at this time last year to 458 permits.

Through Sept. 9, Coolidge had issued 490 single-family permits and another 323 combined permits for projects that include solar, communications, plumbing, patios and fences.

The city of Maricopa, according to the association, has seen a 237% increase, going from 535 to 1,270 homebuilding permits over the same time last year.

Casa Grande ranked third on the list with a 95% increase of homebuilding permits for the first six months of 2021, though Casa Grande Economic Development Director Richard Wilkie said the number of permits to date is 1,214 — a 72% increase from last year. This number surpasses all of last year, when 1,114 homebuilding permits were issued.

In 2020 for Coolidge, 1,066 total building permits were issued with a total construction value of more than $303 million.

Coolidge Economic Services Director Gilbert Lopez expects the 813 permits issued by Sept. 9 to increase to more than 1,000 permits by the end of the year.

Many of the homes sell well before they are even built and sale signs go up in empty lots before construction has even started.

Coolidge City Manager Rick Miller is enthusiastic about the growth.

“I like the planned activity,” he said. “We know we are going to grow with the (jobs in the) area.”

More growth will result in more services for the community, Miller said.

He said construction sales tax is a one-time figure so cities cannot rely on the same figures coming in each year.

Because of this, Coolidge and other cities use these funds for capital projects, like roadway improvements, not operating costs.

Miller said he believes one reason the homebuilding permits are increasing in Coolidge is the prices of homes are more affordable than houses in Maricopa County.

He also said people are seeing more activity occurring in Coolidge, and that more homes are needed for job creation in the workforce.

However, those wanting to purchase a new home in Coolidge will probably have to wait six to seven months to get into the home.

“The inventory is low,” Miller said. “Because there is such a demand, the waiting list is so long.”

Lopez said hundreds of empty lots have been purchased with plans to build housing in Coolidge, and what convinces developers to want to build in Coolidge is there is plenty of water for new connections.

“If you don’t have water you can’t build subdivisions,” Lopez said.

Miller said there is development in the city, but the demand far outweighs the supply, resulting in sellers getting to name their prices while still selling what is built.

Part of the reason people want to move to southern Arizona is no earthquakes, tornadoes or snow to shovel, though it gets a little hot in the summer months, he said.

“As things continue to go, we are looking at between 1,600 and 1,800 homebuilding permits by the end of the year,” Wilkie said in Casa Grande.

He said within three to five years the Lucid Motors factory will triple in size and that the workforce will likely be looking for homes in the future.

Like Miller, Wilkie said the home prices in Casa Grande are much cheaper than in the Valley, and that could be one reason for the surge in permits during an apparent slowdown in Maricopa County.

“It plays a very important role,” he said. “Casa Grande is 25 to 40 percent lower in prices (than Maricopa County).”

The average home price in Casa Grande is between $300,000 and $350,000, while a comparable home in the Valley sells for more than $400,000, Wilkie said.

top story
Pinal water panel suggests major agriculture shift
  • Updated

MARICOPA — What will farmers in Pinal County do with less water resources? Without access to Central Arizona Project water they’ve long relied on, will farmers have to revert to older groundwater methods from decades past?

That was a possibility posed by former Maricopa Mayor Kelly Anderson during a talk about water solutions Friday morning.

“Realistically the area will have to go back to where we were in the fifties, sixties and seventies,” said Anderson, whose family first bought an area farm in 1949. “That means fallowing up to 40 percent of farmland, reducing acreage planted. We need to be equitable throughout the district to make sure there is adequate water supply.”

The discussion was hosted by Pinal Partnership at the Maricopa Library and Cultural Center, as part of a series on water solutions. This time around, moderator Jordan Rose, founder of Rose Law Group, wanted to highlight agricultural concerns.

Bret Jaspers/KJZZ (2018)  

Kelly Anderson is a third-generation farmer in Pinal County.

Anderson was one of two current or former farmers present. The other panelist working in agriculture, Arnott Duncan of Duncan Family Farms, was very stark in his assessment of how farmers in the area could move forward.

“It’s going to hit us like a ton of bricks,” Duncan said about water. “I just think that as farmers we have to be willing to change everything if we want to take advantage of growing opportunities.”

Duncan’s farms plant “baby salad” components like arugula and spring mix, and he said that they had made an effort to use innovative farming methods and that each planting takes a relatively small amount of water, 2.5-3 acre-feet.

The area farmers most affected by limited groundwater are those who grow water-intensive crops like cotton or alfalfa.

Anderson said his family farm had begun harvesting okra or “decorative wheat.”

The Arizona Department of Water Resources announced in June that it would not issue any new certificates of water supply within the Pinal Active Management Area that were based on groundwater supplies. While that doesn’t impact many of the proposed future developments within the county, the decision severely complicates the ability for developers to reach new land agreements, or for farmers to sell or lease new land for residential growth.

Anderson also said the water limitations also put the squeeze on dairy farmers, who he said have had to move out of the Phoenix area over the past few decades.

“They were pushed out and they went to Casa Grande and Maricopa,” Anderson said. “They get further away from processing plants, but there’s no place else to go.”

Anderson and other panelists did note that water usage had become far more efficient, with methods like drip irrigation or leveling, so that water was conserved.

Other members of the panel included two water resource managers — Terri Sue Rossi and Doug Dunham of Arizona Water Company and EPCOR, respectively — as well as Jake Lenderking, senior vice president of Global Water Resources.

Rossi was not optimistic about farmers or developers without state certificates being able to sell land for other uses.

“You can try and acquire renewable water via the Colorado River or build a mini water treatment plant,” Rossi said, “but that’s completely irrational since it’s so cost prohibitive as to be impossible.”

Lenderking said that work adjusting groundwater modeling and potential legislation could address issues like bringing renewable water to subdivisions and making it easier for changing agriculture to municipal lands. Overall, municipal water use is far less than agricultural processes.

“We want to break down those barriers,” Lenderking said. “Why not connect farmland that wants to develop and economic interests, if it’s going to use less water at the end of the day? I am hoping we have a nice proposal out to the Legislature in a few weeks.”