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Maricopa Unified votes to move district online until Jan. 8
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MARICOPA — In a special meeting Thursday night, the Maricopa Unified School Board voted to move online for the first three days back at school to allow for possible COVID-19 outbreaks post-holiday season.

The move came after MUSD Superintendent Tracey Lopeman addressed the board with the latest data released Thursday highlighting the continued spread of COVID-19. The latest metrics, two weeks old, puts MUSD in the red zone for two of the three benchmarks.

“We can all see the trajectory and extrapolate where these benchmarks will continue to escalate,” said Lopeman.

The data shows stark increases in COVID-19 cases, percent positive and COVID-like illnesses, and shows MUSD on a path to crossing into the red zone for the third and final benchmark. At the beginning of the school year, the board used a similar trajectory to make the decision to move online. Board member Jim Jordan wasn’t as sure this time though.

“We’re looking to try to figure out what to do in the future, but it might be that that metric has started to peak, and will start to go down again,” Jordan said. “It’s possible we’ve reached that peak and don’t know it yet.”

Board member Ben Owens responded with a challenge given to him by a teacher in MUSD, quoting the teacher.

“My question to the board is, ‘How do we change as a community if it is not modeled amongst high-ranking citizens such as you and other board members to trust highly educated individuals. Do you choose to ignore science, health experts and other factual data because that is what will satisfy the community? Or do you follow the facts and data like we encourage our students to do?’”

Based on the data and other school board decisions, Owens put forth a consideration to maintain distance learning through Jan. 19. There was some contention between board member Torri Anderson and President AnnaMarie Knorr about what the best interests of students entailed, and whether consistency or in-person learning should be prioritized.

Ultimately, the board preferred to reserve judgment on future closures for after winter break and voted unanimously to approve an online start for all students Jan. 5-8.

Some students might still be in class though. Legally, MUSD is required to provide a free and public education for students with special needs, which could include offering specialized instruction in-person for those students. These students make up a small population, according to Director of Exceptional Student Services Teri Louer.

During distance learning at the beginning of the school year, around 50% of ESS students returned for in-person learning.

The board will meet again Jan. 7, a Thursday, to discuss the latest data and reports of illnesses from MUSD families over break to make further decisions.

“I appreciate and respect all of you, and our ability and our sophistication to have more than one though at one time,” Lopeman said, addressing the board. “I commend you, each of you, on your willingness to serve in this time.

“We’re regular people, making extraordinary decisions for an entire community.”

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Former owners describe history of Maricopa NAPA Autocare after demolition
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MARICOPA — For much of the history of NAPA Autocare in Maricopa, it was a family affair, intertwined in the fabric of an old farming community.

Don and Esta Ray Pearce owned the store from 1959 to the mid 1990s, and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren would be in and out of the shop like it was a second home.

“Even Colby, who’s the great granddaughter, was down underneath the desk right in the office,” said Linda Pearce, daughter of Don and Esta Ray.

Linda’s stories speak to a different time in Maricopa. With 13 kids in her graduating class at MHS, farmland stretching for miles and the railway bustling nearby, she describes a vibrant farming community.

Don was a pinnacle of this community, known to provide a kind of road-side assistance long before AAA.

“Everybody knew his number, his home phone, and they’d call him,” Linda said. “Sometimes he would be driving from Phoenix back home at night, and somebody would be parked on the side of the road broke down, and he’d take them with him and go open the store.”

He’d sell them the part they needed, before returning with them and fixing up their vehicle right there on the roadway.

Every year, Don and the men of Linda’s family would ride out and chop down Christmas trees for the schools to decorate and enjoy during the holiday season. And while Don would shut the doors on Christmas day, all the Pearces knew that they would be back in the shop the following day.

“When we were kids, and then when we had husbands and grandkids — everybody came for inventory,” Linda said fondly. “That was back when you actually had to count every piece that was in the store.”

In 1975, Don also founded the volunteer fire department in Maricopa, and housed fire trucks at the shop for decades before the Maricopa Fire Department grew to what it is today.

The old NAPA Auto Parts building came down on Tuesday, marking the end of an era for the community that has walked through its doors for the last 70 years of business.

Eddie Rodriguez was one of those patrons as a young teenager, crossing the threshold of NAPA Autocare after his dad told him to go get an after-school job in 1979. He walked into NAPA hoping for a mechanic gig, but he was lacking a little background knowledge.

“Don looked at me and he says, ‘Do you know how to work on cars?’ I said, ‘Nope.’” Rodriguez said laughing. “He says ‘Well, do you know automotive parts?’ I says ‘Nope.’ So, he laughed, chuckled a little bit, and he says, ‘Come on in tomorrow and I’ll show you.’

“And by god, he did.”

Rodriguez worked at NAPA for over a decade, learning the trade from Don himself. Don started Rodriguez at the parts counter, but before long he was calling him into the auto shop to learn how to work on the cars. Don sent him to school to get certified, and eventually Rodriguez took over the shop from him.

“He had a lot of knowledge,” Rodriguez said. “I learned a lot from that gentleman and I’ll never regret one bit of it.”

Always one to push for ingenuity in the business, Linda and Rodriguez remember Don as inventing several cutting edge tools that the two joked would’ve done well on the market.

Don had no sons of his own, and Rodriguez fast became family to the Pearces, as well as being trusted to work on their vehicles.

“Don and Esta Ray had nothing but girls in his family,” Rodriguez said. “When I came in, he took me in like a son.”

“A brother,” Linda added.

“Yeah, I accepted that,” Rodriguez agreed. “(He was) a second father. He showed me a lot and without him — I wouldn’t be here without his assistance and his help.”

Rodriguez went on to become a fire marshal for the Maricopa Fire Department, never straying too far from his roots.

The Pearces sold the property in the ’90s and it spent another 20 years in operation with Tom and Tena Dugan. The building was scheduled for demolition to help create space for a new pedestrian bridge to go over the tracks next to State Route 347 overpass. The Dugans will move with NAPA Auto Parts to its new location.

Rodriguez was there to watch the store come down, and shed a tear for the loss of something more than just the remnants of an old building. Still, he managed to snag a sign off the building before it came down, holding onto a final piece. It will remain with him for life, he says.

“That’s my historical sign, I ain’t never letting go of that thing,” Rodriguez said.

Similarly, some of Linda’s fondest memories of her family remain with that historic building and the many parts of Maricopa that are already gone. Linda says it was hard to let go of some of those buildings she had come to cherish, but it’s never truly gone.

“There are some things that I miss, like having the school — the old school — but I knew it was falling apart so it needed to go,” Linda said. “Maricopa Station that’s going to be in that area is going to be so much nicer. Even though our family history is gone, that doesn’t mean that town history is. It’s just a new part of it.”

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Residents of Heritage District detail transformation of community
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MARICOPA — The Heritage District in Maricopa has undergone a transformation in the last few years. From new roads and street lights to fresh paint and concrete, the city has worked with the community to help address repairs and improve the living spaces of residents.

The city of Maricopa first proposed a plan in 2009 to help support community members in addressing repairs and improvements that would benefit the residents directly. In the last couple years, that plan has taken shape, especially in the Maricopa Station area.

Maricopa Station is a diamond-shaped parcel of land in the heart of the city, to the east of the State Route 347 overpass. The city formed a Heritage District Advisory Committee to help with ideas and planning, and enlisted the help of neighbors and residents to ensure community feedback.

At a Dec. 1 board meeting, Judy Ramos presented much of their work for the community thus far to the city council.

“I just want to start by thanking you for the opportunity to share a story of a vision that became a reality through grassroots efforts, community engagements and the resident’s desire to build a stronger, safer and healthier community working with city staff,” Ramos began.

Some major changes began last year with a large clean-up effort that removed a combined 27 tons of trash and debris from properties throughout the community. Overgrown trees and shrubs were also removed, and residents were offered the opportunity to demolish any buildings that were unsafe or unused.

Nine residents took advantage of that program, which safely removed the structures. Next, the city worked to repave several roads in the Maricopa Station area, adding street lights and beautification along the way.

“It’s made a huge difference for the residents in this community,” Ramos said. “The project included new sidewalks, new streetlights, obviously the new roadway, also some private property improvements in order to provide the adequate area for the roadway and the sidewalks.”

The street lights project was awarded $182,000, and the city purchased 23 solar-powered light fixtures that offer a maximum amount of light for residents.

“I spoke to various neighbors and residents in the neighborhood after the streetlights were installed and many of them were just really thankful and thrilled to have lighting for the first time in their neighborhood,” Ramos said.

The city also received $54,000 in funding for fencing in the area, which add a visually appealing feature to the neighborhoods. The stone pillar and wooden slatted fencing is still under construction and is scheduled to be completed in early 2021.

With the road renovations, new road signs were needed and residents were able to have a hand in naming their neighborhood roads.

“As part of our main street upgrades we created new street signs to enhance the neighborhood and to make it special,” Ramos said. “The residents were able to get involved — their whole family was allowed to nominate a name. Staff vetted the names and selected what they believed were the best representing names for their neighborhood.”

The new street names include Main Street — formerly Pershing Street — Cesar Chavez Lane, Mercado Street, Heritage Lane, Maricopa Road and Stagecoach Lane.

Next on the list was housing rehabilitation, which included funding roof repair, new fixtures, windows and paint for residents who were in need of these repairs.

One of the recipients was Grace Gomez, a member of the Heritage committee and a local community activist. The 64-year-old has lived here her entire life, and has witnessed her community grow and thrive from the original founding members in her neighborhood.

“The community history here in the Heritage area is more or less Hispanic families, typically farm labor. Most of our homeowners were farm labor workers,” Gomez said. “Very close knit families around here, they’re always willing to help each other out.”

When the first residents settled in the Heritage area in the ’40s, Maricopa was an unincorporated swath of farm land, and many families relied on each other for services. Even fire and police were miles away, and residents would need to call Florence for the closest help.

Gomez says most residents feel the improvements are a benefit to the community, and there are also some who would like their homes and neighborhood preserved as much as possible. The city has made most of their enhancements by community suggestion, and have made offers of improvements where they feel is prudent while accommodating those who have their own preferences.

“The majority are willing to have improvements done, but there are some that still want to stay within their comfort zone.” Gomez said. “A lot of people don’t want to let go of their roots here. Our roots are very deep, like in my family, with my grandkids being here, that’s five generations … It’s the same way with the Rodriguezes and Hernandezes and all the other families that have been here for many years. We don’t want to lose everything, because it is a historical place.”

For Gomez, her home was built in 1983 just before a historic flooding event the following year, and over the decades it has received quite the beating of desert weather. She was in need of roof repairs, and the city stepped in to make those improvements.

Gomez received the roof repair, and also a brand new front door, stucco, double-paned windows and — perhaps the most eye-catching change — a new robin’s-egg-blue paint job for the exterior.

Gomez is happy with the new look, and Ramos was excited to share the before and after photos at the Dec. 1 council meeting.

“It’s this little gem in the neighborhood,” Ramos said of Gomez’s home.

This year, thanks in part to the repairs to Gomez’s exterior, she has gone all out with her Christmas decorating and even entered her home in the City of Maricopa Christmas light competition.

Another home nearby belonging to an elderly resident had issues related to a cracked sidewalk and overgrown shrubbery on her property that prevented her from using her walker or wheelchair to move around. In addition to new windows and a paint job, the city repaved her walkway and removed the overgrowth.

“That was a really important project,” Ramos said. “We were able to clear that pathway in front of her home and make some of the repairs to the broken-down sidewalk and remove the overgrown trees and shrubs that were causing visibility and walkability issues for her.”

While some roadways and sidewalks are already completed, Gomez hopes the city will continue moving forward with the re-paving of other roads like the one outside her house.

“It’s taken quite a while to get some improvements. On the road where I live out here on Heritage Lane, we still haven’t got sidewalks, or lights, or the road hasn’t been improved,” Gomez said. “I’m expecting that we can get something hopefully by next year.”

Most of these improvements were done with grants as opposed to city funding, and enabled the city community services department to hone in on the needs of this community.

“A lot of these projects that were done here weren’t used with general fund money, but were (done with) the benefit of national grants like the community development block grant that requires that you have areas like that,” said Director of Community Services Nathan Ullyot. “This is the heart of the city and that’s why we want to invest so many resources into it.”

Gomez mentioned in the future, she hoped the city would expand their community meetings and allow for even more voices of the Heritage areas to have input, such as the North Maricopa, Estrella Park, Edwards circle, Maricopa Manor and McDavid areas.

“I would like if one day we could get all of the (Heritage communities) together, and kind of get some feedback from everybody,” Gomez said. “We would also like the Heritage community to be represented, not only the new community. I’m really grateful for the new community … but we don’t want to be left out in the same transaction. We want to be recognized also.

At the Dec. 1 meeting, City Manager Rick Horst said they will be extending the invitation to future community meetings to all residents, incorporating even more feedback from the residents of Heritage District areas.

“We’re trying to magnify and allow more voices and more opportunity so when we have a project in the district there won’t be a 300- or a 600-foot notice but we’ll go to all residents within the district and we will have community meetings and invite all residents to the meetings,” said City Manager Rick Horst.

Ullyot completed the presentation saying that there is still much more development to look forward to in 2021.

“This is the heart of the community, and you’re going to see even more developments come within this area that is just going to further enhance this home that everyone has.”

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Little Whiskers finds success in new TNR program
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MARICOPA — Trying to curb the feral cat population in Maricopa is like — well, it’s like herding cats. But Little Whiskers Animal Rescue is attempting to do just that with the introduction of its TNR program, which began in October.

TNR, which stands for trap, neuter and release, aims to help keep these outdoor cats safe and prevent them from reproducing. Little Whiskers owner and operator Brittney McCarthy began the program after a boom in the cat population behind Bashas’.

“We go out there and trap them, mainly focusing on behind Bashas’ because it’s the largest colony in Maricopa; they have at least over 200 ferals back there,” McCarthy said. “Once we trap them, we take them up and get them spayed or neutered, they get the rabies vaccine and also an ear clip, and then we put them back out to the colony they came from.”

An ear clip identifies the cats that have already been through this process.

The traps are never left without supervision, and the cats are mainly trapped in the cooler hours of the evening to help prevent unnecessary stress on the animals. Once caught, they stay overnight before heading to the vet and being returned to their colony.

Though the colony behind Bashas’ is the largest, there are others in the neighborhoods and communities around Maricopa that Little Whiskers also tries to help.

A few years ago, Pinal County Animal Care and Control came out and attempted to do a TNR program but found that some residents were damaging and tampering with the traps. The agency decided against continuing the program because of this, according to McCarthy.

“Not everybody understands what TNR is,” McCarthy said. “Just because you see a cat outside does not mean they’re dumped. … I mean, there’s a really big difference (between) a feral or a friendly. I don’t think a lot of people are educated on that.”

Cats, unlike dogs, have a small window of time to become socialized to humans. After that point, they are considered feral, meaning they do not like or want human contact and are considered akin to a wild animal. Cat experts like McCarthy do not recommend attempting to socialize a feral cat and instead suggest providing resources for the cats in their environment and preventing more kittens.

Another common issue that led to the TNR program being implemented is a rise in residents who, well meaning though they may be, take kittens from their mothers that are much too young to be adopted.

“Kitten snatching is ridiculous right now,” McCarthy said. “They go and they find the babies and they take the babies not realizing they do have a mom and they are feral. These kittens most likely end up dying because they take them as newborns and they don’t know what to do.”

If a mother cat is found with kittens, Little Whiskers will trap both the mom and babies and house them in the barn program, which puts them up with local farmers who can house them until the kittens are adoptable. The farmers get a free mouser, and the kittens can stay with their mom until they’re old enough to be adopted.

The mom will then go through the TNR program and be released back to the colony safely.

When kittens are found at an adoptable age, they can also be caught and socialized through Little Whiskers’ extensive foster network in Maricopa.

One unfortunate side effect of a community member attempting to remove kittens or cats from their environment is, if the animals are scared or chased, they may run into the road and be hit and killed by oncoming cars — something McCarthy has witnessed in recent months.

If residents would like to help the cat colony, the best way to do that is through Little Whiskers. The organization is in need of volunteers to work with them during TNR events to catch the cats and transport them to their vet appointments.

Little Whiskers approached the city for help, but at first they were denied. Instead, the county agreed to take five cats a week from the program, lessening the burden of medical bills on Little Whiskers. The city of Maricopa then agreed with the county to be billed directly.

For those who like to help in other ways, Little Whiskers is in need of donations of canned cat food and monetary donations to help fund this project and maintain the health of the cat community.

Foster homes are also a need, and residents can volunteer to take in a kitty in need and help get them ready for a loving home.

To find out about more ways to support Little Whiskers Animal Rescue, log onto the website at littlewhiskers.org or on the Facebook page.