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Florence water becoming a lot ‘smarter’
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FLORENCE — The town’s water customers should all have “smart” water meters a couple of months or so into the new year, and shortly afterward have access to a computer app with a wealth of information about their water usage.

Florence is a test site for development of an advanced water metering infrastructure.

“We have really three key partners who are part of developing this new system and launching it, and it’s been really neat to sit back and watch,” Town Manager Brent Billingsley said in a year-end interview. The town’s partners are Ferguson Waterworks, Mueller Systems and IoT Advent. “And certainly on the back end we have Subex, our partner doing the security aspect ensuring everyone’s data and the system as a whole is secure,” he added.

The meters already existed, but a team of engineers had to build the software and hardware, including battery-powered nodes that sit at everyone’s meter box, uploading and downloading real-time information as part of the LoRaWAN network (a low-power, wide-area networking protocol for wireless streaming of data).

“That all had to be built and programmed from scratch. It took them two or three months to go through that process and actually put that into action. It’s been interesting.” The town will have an electronic meter system that’s first of its kind. “We have great partnerships and we’re going to have a great project to show for it once it’s complete.”

“Smart City” is a term that describes a city that uses technology to collect data and manage assets, resources and services efficiently. Florence’s smart city program and its LoRaWAN network has been up and running for almost a year after a substantial testing process.

“The LoRa system is working great. We have over a 99% read rate … when we ping the meters to get a read, 99% immediately respond. … For that 1%, once we get all the meters in the ground, there will be a certain amount of troubleshooting and enhancement on the software side to make sure the system works flawlessly,” Billingsley said.

He said there are currently more than 2,600 smart meters installed in town, so that task is more than two-thirds complete. He said COVID-19 affected the project, including measures necessary to keep everyone safe during installation.

“The system at this time is exceeding expectations and is working very well, and as you know is going to provide all types of information that folks can really use as customers.” The customer app is not yet available.

The town’s app developer, WaterSmart, is currently working on integration of data from the meters through the town’s Smart City system and coordinating it with the town’s billing system. The app can’t be launched until all meters are online and all the information is integrated and shown to be working properly. “We’re testing now,” Billingsley said.

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New Gila River bridge, roundabout planned for 2022 in Florence
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FLORENCE — There won’t be a new Gila River bridge in 2021, but the new year will still see its share of major infrastructure projects with lasting benefits, Town Manager Brent Billingsley said.

The town has been working with the Arizona Department of Transportation and consultants on the bridge for a couple of years. It was originally planned for 2021, then ADOT moved its funding out to 2023. Then in the last couple of months, the schedule changed again for 2022.

“They are in the design phase now,” Billingsley said. Besides a nice-looking, functional and modern bridge, “the whole flood plain and floodway has been re-analyzed,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of work done to make sure the bridge is protected from scour (erosion) and is going to be there for the next 100 years.” It will also have the pedestrian walkway that the town pushed for, he said.

The town worked with ADOT and its partners on an alternative to months of traffic closure, and the result is a “bridge slider” concept. “They will physically construct the bridge off-site and they’ll slide it into place on the bridge piers and abutments, which will significantly reduce the construction time and we’ll be able to have traffic passing through on State Route 79 for most of the construction.”

A closure will still be necessary for two weeks or so, “but that is a significant improvement to what was originally planned, and we’re excited about the partnership,” Billingsley said. “We’re excited about the opportunity to get a new bridge in place, and have that be an attractive and functional design.”

Also in the design phase with construction anticipated in 2022 is the town’s first roundabout. It will replace the odd intersection of State Routes 287 and 79B. “We’re hoping to have design completed sometime in the summer of 2021; construction should begin in 2022. I think it’s going to be a very functional, very attractive, very safe design,” Billingsley said.

ADOT is currently at work on cultural resources at the site and looking at property that may need to be acquired for right of way.

Among major projects set to happen in 2021, the town was recently awarded two large infrastructure loans from the Arizona Water Infrastructure Finance Authority and will complete upgrades at the town’s south wastewater treatment plant.

The north wastewater plant, due to condition and age, will be converted to a lift station and a force main will run across the Gila River so that waste from the Five Parks over-55 community can be treated at the south plant.

The town is further planning to replace an existing water well, connect the new well to the north side of the river and build a new storage tank. In the next week or so, the town will begin $900,000 in downtown water main improvements in conjunction with Pinal County.

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Town working for more diverse housing options in 2021
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FLORENCE — Although building continues to boom in Florence, it’s not what everyone needs, and town officials are aware of that.

“One of the things we continually hear from employers in the area is that, ‘We just love all this growth that’s occurring in Florence,’” but for a lot of their employees, it’s not quite affordable, and the town needs more housing diversity, Town Manager Brent Billingsley told the Florence Reminder & Blade-Tribune in a year-end interview.

“So we’ve been working very hard on that,” he said. “We’ve got a number of things in the works.”

Town of Florence  

This graph shows the town’s cumulative building permit valuations in millions of dollars for the last three years. Red shows each month in 2018, yellow in 2019 and blue in 2020. While interest appeared to pick up in 2019, it shot up in 2020.

The town is currently negotiating a development agreement with MODUS Holdings Inc., a Scottsdale company known for its modern, award-winning residential developments. MODUS is planning to build a community of 112 rentals north of Heritage Park in the town’s Territory Square District.

“We’re quite honestly having meetings all the time with folks who are interested in filling some of those voids that exist, and trying to make sure that we have a (housing) product here in Florence that will support everybody,” Billingsley said.

The town has “infill” tools to encourage development of vacant lots, and the forthcoming Redevelopment Plan update should provide further incentives, Billingsley said. The Redevelopment Plan was complicated by the pandemic, which affected the consultant’s ability to gather information.

But the draft report is complete and it’s been under review. The final version was scheduled to go to the town’s Historic District Advisory Commission for its review on Wednesday, and will go to the Planning and Zoning Commission next month. Assuming a positive recommendation from Planning and Zoning, the Town Council could be considering approval in early spring.

The town’s new economic development director, Elan Vallender, has worked in construction trades “and I think that’s a very important skill set he brings to the table with the type of growth Florence is seeing at this time,” Billingsley said.

Vallender comes to Florence from Apache Junction, where he spent the last eight years in economic development. Billingsley said Vallender is also a former small business and large business owner with first-hand knowledge and experience in what it takes to start a business, do proper business planning and business expansion.

As director of economic development, Vallender takes on a task in Florence that hasn’t had an official leader for several years. “It’s been a pleasure having him and it takes a great deal of weight off my shoulders,” Billingsley said.

As the town closes out the old year, “I’m very appreciative and excited about the quality of Florence’s town staff,” Billingsley said. “They’ve been through a lot; the nation as a whole, the state, have been through a lot over the past 10 months having to do with COVID-19. Our employees have worked so hard, and they’ve been so committed to the cause of trying to provide excellent customer service and support to our residents, businesses and stakeholders. I’m in awe of the folks we have employed here and their commitment.

“I’m very happy with the sound, political support, policy support and overall care that our Town Council has provided in their sage leadership over the last year and is going to provide continuing forward. They really have done a great job of supporting staff, supporting me and making sure we do our best to support the needs of this community.”

Manager reflects on last 5 years

FLORENCE — Brent Billingsley reflected on his first five years as town manager in a year-end interview with the Florence Reminder.

“When I think of the last five years, we’ve accomplished so many things, and so much positive growth and benefit for the community and the residents,” he said. “When I first got here, one of the biggest challenges the town had at that time, was Florence was one of the few Arizona cities that hadn’t approved its Home Rule option,” which greatly restricted the town’s ability to budget and spend its revenues.

Voters eventually approved Home Rule again, followed by a Permanent Base Adjustment, which relieved the town of having to renew Home Rule every four years. The town has local control and “is in excellent financial position.

“… Not only are we more financially sustainable, not only do we have the legislative authority we need, but we have not squandered that opportunity … with excellent financial management, excellent investments and really a bright financial future for the town of Florence. I’m particularly proud of that.”

Second, he said, is improved streets and utilities. “Obviously, I’m an infrastructure guy, and one of the reasons why I believe I was brought to Florence was to enhance and improve our infrastructure, not only for the residents but for future development.” He said town officials and staff have worked hard to make substantial improvements to the transportation network, along with “our water system, our sewer system, drainage and flood control, as well as increased quality of town facilities and what we have to offer residents.”

Third is updating the town’s key “foundational documents” for optimal responsiveness to the town’s residents and businesses, Billingsley said.

“We’ve spent the last three years really working hard on a regional transportation plan, parks and recreation open space master plan, active transportation plan, safe routes to school — we’re about to submit for approval and go through the hearing process regarding the update to our Redevelopment Area Plan.

“We’ve worked hard as well and are working towards our General Plan update, which we hope to complete in 2021 and perhaps take to the voters in 2022.

“These documents are so incredibly important in shaping the future of the town and making sure that we’re moving in the direction the residents want us to go.”

Lastly, Billingsley said he’s proud of steady, quality growth in Florence. “As you know, we’re setting records again in terms of new home development. As of this fall, we’ve seen an increase of over 55% in the number of single-family permits, even over the same period last year, which was a banner year for us in terms of residential growth.

“We recently issued 60 new single-family permits I believe in September, which is the fourth-highest total ever recorded for a single month in Florence, with the previous month being the second-highest ever on record.

“Even more important in my mind is we’ve really put the tools in place and worked hard toward getting more infill (on vacant lots) development and redevelopment in old-town Florence, an area of the town that had not seen growth in quite some time.”

Sunrise Estates Phase II, which has sat dormant for over a decade, has been bought by a new developer “and new homes are going to begin construction in the new year.”

More than just new construction, the town continues to preserve its history. “You’ve seen a number of our buildings repurposed, being redone,” Billingsley said. He noted the efforts of Tom and Lynn Smith to save the historic Cuen Building downtown. “These are all wonderful things.”

Town leaders are also looking forward to the results of the 2020 Census to see how much the town has grown. The town’s assessed valuation has also increased with growth in the last couple of years. “That means a lot to us and the services we can provide, as well as benefits to our residents.”

As for anything he wished he could do over in the last five years, Billingsley couldn’t name anything.

“I’m an optimistic guy. Everything that occurs, every decision that’s made, every implementation that we work through, they’re all successful, because we learn things — the town staff, the council, members of our development community — we learn things from projects that may not go forward or may not have turned out the way that we wanted. And that just gives us more capability … to build towards that quality development and quality decision.

“So I don’t really have anything as a do-over. Everything is an opportunity to succeed. Every opportunity is an opportunity to learn and to move forward toward more positive decisions.”