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'A much-different-looking downtown' ahead in Florence
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FLORENCE — When Keith Eaton came to Kingman more than 16 years ago, the downtown area was rundown and there wasn’t much going on.

But working with building owners, the city was able put it on a path to success.

“I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish,” Eaton said. “Now downtown Kingman is vibrant six nights a week. It’s hard to find parking places.”

Eaton said good things are about to happen to downtown Florence, too. Some buildings have recently sold. The family that now owns the former Florence Market have plans to open an antique store and confectionery this summer. Others may be ready to announce plans in the next month or so.

“Within a year I think you’re going to see a much-different-looking downtown. … Definitely by the fall you’ll see some stuff happening downtown. This is an exciting time to be in Florence,” Eaton said.

Eaton, 58, started six months ago as Florence’s Community Development director and fire marshal. He had a similar job in Kingman, where he was assistant fire chief and the building department was under the fire department. Florence’s new Fire Chief, Paul Adams, has been a friend for 15 years.

Eaton and his wife moved to Florence to be close to family. Their daughter and her family live in Gilbert.

He said he and Building Official Jim Allen work for the intent of the code, rather than the letter of the code.

“We apply it almost every day downtown. We know the buildings downtown can never get to 100% of the code, the letter of the code. Our goal is to get as close as we can to the intent of what that code is.”

A current issue is the need for a firewall between two buildings with two different owners, and by the letter of the code, “you can’t get there without tearing the building down. … You have to be able to adapt to get as close as you can.”

He’s also a third-generation general contractor, and “I understand what the contractors and developers go through. … It’s very important to us that when we tell somebody they can’t do something because of the code, that we help them, one, understand. And two, help give them ideas, thoughts about how they can get as close as they can to that.”

New downtown housing

Other good news for Florence is that all the new homes aren’t just in Anthem.

“Right now we’re working through development agreements, final plats, for close to 400 homes downtown.” The long-dormant Sunrise Estates phase II is gearing up. Next to that is a 70-acre development that should be ready to make an announcement soon. Behind the dialysis center is another old plat that is being revived.

All this new housing will also “bring an amazing amount of life” to downtown, Eaton said.

There’s also Mesquite Trails, the first big Florence subdivision outside downtown that isn’t part of Anthem. It’s been in the works for 16 years, but is now starting to move fast, Eaton said.

There are three major commercial projects on Hunt Highway, “coming out of the ground or at least in the permitting process” — Circle K, Superstar Car Wash and Big O Tires. American Leadership Academy is also planning a high school near its existing grade school near Hunt Highway and Franklin Road.

Customer service

Eaton said he wants to build on Community Development’s advances in customer service. The town is presently looking at some electronic plan review options and technology updates in which citizens may apply, pay, monitor and order inspections, all through a computer portal, saving a lot of time.

“You have to make sure customer service is our number-one. What I found when I got down here was that customer service had been enhanced greatly over the years. We’re a much different department today than in the past.

“I’m not saying anything bad about anybody else in the past,” Eaton continued. “But one thing you have to do when you interpret the codes, you dictate the codes, is you have to be fair and consistent. The biggest part of our job is education,” why someone can or can’t do something.

“We hear all the time the town or the building department is so hard to work with. If that was the case in the past, it’s not now. We spend a lot of time bending over backwards trying to explain and educate people on the code. And once you explain it, 90% of the time, (they say) ‘Oh, I get it.’ That’s the biggest mistake of code officials, (when) they just dictate it.”

He said he knows the other side because he’s also been a general contractor. He said he was a residential builder and commercial builder, and spent years building Papa John’s Pizza locations in 13 states.

Code enforcement

“I presently oversee planning and zoning, the building department, code enforcement, the cemetery and sanitation,” Eaton said. “I’ve had to evaluate every division and see where we’re at.”

Code enforcement, or enforcing how well properties are maintained, is often a reaction to citizen complaints, but the town is also trying to be proactive as much as possible, Eaton said.

He said he plans to do a presentation to the Town Council, perhaps toward the end of June, on changes in code enforcement, including tightening up timelines. The process can appear slow because of time frames prescribed by law and the rights citizens have.

Code enforcement officer Curtis Williams “wears a lot of hats, but does a good job trying to work with people.” Eaton said a lot of people come into compliance voluntarily. “Voluntary compliance is what we seek. … it makes everything better.” Overall, people do a pretty good job taking care of their properties. “Wherever you go, it’s similar.”

As for building codes, he’s planning a new code adoption in the next year. “We try to stay in as current a code set as we can. A lot of that is based on the Insurance Service Office, or ISO, requires cities and towns to stay as current as they can.

“Generally I stay one code set back, because it’s expensive to do codes. You won’t find many towns and cities that adopt the current code when it comes out; and we let them work the bugs out of it, too.”

New 2021 codes are about to come out, but the town will adopt 2018 codes, which is what other jurisdictions around Florence are using.

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Council debates options for rodeo grounds
  • Updated

FLORENCE — A new water well, treatment and storage at Charles Whitlow Rodeo Grounds would cost Florence an estimated $1.3 million, Town Manager Brent Billingsley told the Town Council Monday.

The council could also choose not to invest in the aging arena and build new rodeo facilities elsewhere at a cost of perhaps $5.5 million, he said. Town staff recommends a new well at the existing arena, he said.

The casing has collapsed on the arena’s old well, which requires a new well to be drilled, Ben Bitter, assistant to the town manager, commented after the meeting. There has been no determination about the future of the rodeo grounds, except that the mayor and council have made a preliminary decision to continue to host signature events, such as the Junior Parada, for the coming year. This will be done by hauling water to the site 3 miles south of downtown.

Long-term options are still under study and will be the topic of future discussion by the council in public meetings, Bitter said.

Councilman John Anderson recommended cutting out extras and building a new site for $2 million or $3 million, rather than spending $1.3 million on land the town doesn’t own. He also suggested a facility that could be used for more events than rodeos.

The existing arena is on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land for which the town has a patent. Vice Mayor Michelle Cordes said she would also like to know the town’s options for recouping its investment if the BLM were to cancel the town’s contract.

Billingsley said as long as the town follows the patent, the chances of the government taking the land back are very slim.

Cordes said her other issue is the property needs other major improvements besides the well, and the council doesn’t know those costs. “It’s going to cost us more than that ($1.3 million), we all know that.”

Councilwoman Kristen Rodriguez said she’d like to see a full analysis of both options, including opportunities for partnerships and sponsorships if the rodeo arena were to move off BLM land. She also said the town should explore grants and other funding sources.

Billingsley said Florence Economic Development Director Elan Vallender and Community Services Director Hezekiah Allen have been gathering information from individuals inside and outside the community for two months on the town’s options for repairing, upgrading and operating the rodeo grounds.

The council took no action Monday.

The town isn’t committing to spending anything at this time, Mayor Tara Walter said. “We’re simply identifying the issues, and making a plan to move forward. And we want input, not only from our citizens and community, but all of the experts in this field as well.”

In other action Monday:

  • The council honored Dan Cisco, Public Works superintendent, for 25 years of service. He received a plaque and gift card. Billingsley said Cisco is “the guy that everybody depends on when they’re in a tough spot and needs help” and is one of the finest employees and finest people he knows.

Public Works Director and Town Engineer Chris Salas added that he admires Cisco in many ways and appreciates Cisco’s hard work every day.

Cisco commented that he has had “a great experience” in the town of Florence.

  • Billingsley reported the town has been awarded a $5,000 grant from the Library Services and Technology Act to develop a “Together in Florence Story Walk” at Heritage Park.

He said the town was also featured prominently in Water & Wastes Digest magazine for its automated water metering system and the town’s Smart Cities technology.

Billingsley further reported that construction will likely start in the fall to widen Centennial Park Drive. The town was also able to close an open mine shaft near Poston Butte “at a very reasonable cost” of $5,000, significantly less than a previous quote the town received of $30,000.

  • The council approved a contract with CCS Presentation Systems for audio and video upgrades in the council chambers for $154,671.
  • The council approved a contract with Matrix New World Engineering for the design, permitting, bidding, drilling, installation and testing of a new town water well at a cost of $100,000. This new well will be a replacement of the town’s well No. 5, which was shut down due to high nitrate levels.

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Parent alerts board to safety concerns at Florence High
  • Updated

FLORENCE — A parent told the Florence Unified School District board that since his son was arrested at Florence High School last month, he has learned of several other safety and security issues.

“The school administration is out of control and something needs to be done,” Johnie Mendoza told the school board on May 11.

Mendoza said that on April 14, two senior boys, apparently legal adults, tried to fight his son. “Where was all the security at this time?” Mendoza asked. He said his son was the only one arrested and paraded in front of other students as an example. “Was this school policy or an administrative choice?”

When Mendoza was called, he said, he could overhear an administrator tell Mendoza’s wife his son wasn’t being arrested for the fight but for disrespecting him in front of 500 students. He said the administrator added as an apparent afterthought, “Oh, and your son did put hands on me.”

Mendoza asked why the others weren’t arrested.

“I would hate to think this was because my son is Black,” he said. “It appears to this parent that disrespecting (the administrator) is a more severe offense than two adult students fighting a 16-year-old underclassman.”

Since then, Mendoza said he has received a number of videos and emails detailing violence and sexual harassment at FHS. In one particular video, “the fight was brutal.”

Board member Roger Biede asked for an update on security at Florence High School at the next board meeting.

Pay raises

The board also approved raises, performance pay and retention stipends for teachers and other school staff. FUSD is absorbing increased costs of state retirement and insurance, for a total increase of approximately 3% for a teacher who makes $50,000, or 4% if potential student growth occurs.

Despite a 9% decrease in attendance due to the pandemic and a corresponding loss of funding, the district’s goals include competitive pay and avoiding staff reductions, Denice Erickson, FUSD chief financial officer, told the board.

Other school personnel, or “classified” staff, will receive a cost-of-living increase to their base pay of 1.23% beginning July 1, and FUSD will also cover their insurance and retirement increases.

Returning classified staff will receive a one-time retention stipend from federal COVID relief grant funds if they were employed on or before March 12. Biede asked the reason for the difference in raises for teachers and other employees.

Erickson replied, “Although the dollar amounts are different, the percentage increase for classified staff is actually greater” than for teachers, Erickson said.

In other business May 11:

  • The board approved an agreement with Akima Global Services, which will pay FUSD $3,000 per month to lease a portion of the lower K-8 campus for professional development of prison employees. The contract is for five years, with both parties having the option to terminate with 90 days’ notice.

Biede asked if the district did sufficient investigation to ensure the company’s activities won’t be uncomfortable next to an elementary school. Erickson said the activities will “absolutely not” endanger students. The company will fence off its area to be separate from the student population, and none of the training will involve inmates, she said.

  • Florence High School Student Council member Reece Rimmer expressed gratitude to the parents, teachers and town personnel whose efforts made it possible for the school to have a prom on May 8 on North Main Street. She also thanked the board and other school officials. She said at one time, they weren’t sure there would be a prom because of the pandemic.
  • Superintendent Chris Knutsen said the district lost a maintenance staff member, Paul Turley, a “larger-than-life” and “salt-of-the-earth” person, “and we’re going to miss him.” Knutsen said the pandemic has touched everyone in some horrible ways. “Hopefully we get to the end where things can somewhat get back to normal.”