San Manuel wants a comeback
A tiny former mining area can't afford to become a town, but its residents put together a nonprofit to try to revitalize the unincorporated area.
For today’s story, Rachel again teamed up with Arizona Daily Star reporter Caitlin Schmidt, who focuses on solutions journalism, to report on an unincorporated area itching for a better future. You can find more of Caitlin’s solutions stories here and help guide the Daily Star’s solutions beat via this survey. We’ll send out our podcast that talks about this story this afternoon for our paid subscribers, so be sure you’re on our paid list by clicking below.
When the San Manuel Copper Mine closed about two decades ago, the community lost its identity and much of what made it operate.
From then on, San Manuel, about an hour northeast of Tucson, became defined by what it was missing: a hospital, a grocery store, a cemetery, a community swimming pool. Hope.
But a few years ago, a group of locals who took immense pride in their unincorporated community started itching for change. They reached out to other former mining towns to find out how they could rebuild their identity.
They started to see a future for San Manuel that wasn’t just about everything the community lost when the mine closed, but about what the community could be.
They could not incorporate: becoming a town was too costly. But they could find ways to have a collective voice and meet the needs of their neighbors. They could bring in new businesses. They could rebuild a park.
They could put San Manuel back on the map, despite all it had lost.
They got some help from Local First Arizona, and the San Manuel Revitalization Coalition was born. And the signs of rebirth are all over the community, where the San Pedro River flows and the Galiuro Mountains create the scenic surroundings.
Off the main road through town, a tiny grocery store named Simply Something provides fresh produce and plants. The UTV rental place sits across the parking lot, a sign of the outdoor recreation potential of the area. New murals dot the brick buildings, including the revamped community center taken over from the county. Newly installed park equipment sits outside its doors. A chili cook-off brought in hundreds to the small airport, some who flew their planes in to hear live music and test chili recipes.
San Manuel has some untapped gems: There’s an old golf course that could be revitalized. There’s an airfield for model airplanes and an airport for real ones, both unheard of in tiny towns. There are eight churches, but no bars. If you ask a local in San Manuel, they can rattle off a list of ideas to make the town better and whom they’re talking with to try to do it.
The collapse of a company town is a classic Western tale and one common to many rural Arizona communities. The mine provided everything, from jobs to food to health care. But once those mines ran out of ore or stopped making money, the mines closed and the companies left — but the people stayed. And without their major employer, they withered.
Becoming a town is out of reach for many of these communities because it would increase costs for residents too much. And beyond the costs, the idea of instituting a bunch of rules and guidelines doesn’t sit right with people who chose the independent, unincorporated lifestyle for a reason. But without a town, they have no centralized voice. There’s no one to go to when there’s a problem.
If the model used by San Manuel works, other unincorporated areas could follow suit. Sure, a nonprofit does not have the same power or finances as a town. But they can get grants to fund local projects and come together to advance their area outside of a formal government structure.
San Manuel, like Ajo before it, put together a nonprofit board that oversees functions that a mayor or town would. The San Manuel Revitalization Coalition was established in 2020 after 200 community members came together to do something good for the place they call home, according to the group.
The coalition was formed after a year of conversations between community members and representatives of Pinal County, the Mammoth-San Manuel School District, Local First Arizona and the local nonprofit Copper Town Association. A nonprofit, the coalition is managed by a community-selected board and works to improve access to resources that are usually not found in unincorporated areas.
Unincorporated communities dot the Arizona landscape. If a nonprofit model could give a voice to these communities without breaking the bank in San Manuel and Ajo, it just might work for other places, too. Already, San Manuel, the new kid on the nonprofit block, sees their hard work realized. The residents hope they can become an example to others.
'CAT' ladies and help from Ajo
San Manuel is near Oracle and Mammoth, but Tucson is the nearest large city. San Manuel sprung up in the 1950s to house the workers at the new copper mine. Most of the block houses built by the mining company still look identical to one another, though a coat of paint here and some yard decorations there show a resident’s flavor.
The San Manuel Copper Mine was once the “world’s largest underground copper mine,” Star archives show. It operated for 44 years, with its products leaving town via the San Manuel Arizona Railroad Company. Mining stopped in 1999 because prices fell and the amount of ore that could be mined declined. In 2003, the mine closed for good.
Though the mine closure reverberates in the community’s blood, decades later, some residents wanted to move on.
And that all started with the CAT ladies, whose work had nothing to do with cats.
Before there was the revitalization coalition, there was the Community Action Team, a volunteer group of a few dedicated women who were fighting to literally clean up their community. Gilda Macbain moved to the area nine years ago to be closer to her grandkids and started getting involved about two years later.
“I thought, ‘I’m just going to start contacting people and networking,’” Macbain said.
She met a woman who was hosting outdoor movies at the San Manuel airport and invited her to join forces. The duo reached out to a third woman who was doing trash cleanup, and a fourth soon followed.
The so-called “CAT ladies” were formed. During their short tenure, the group was able to get a blighted property on Main Street demolished, then enlisted Pinal County to bring in staff to clean up overgrown vegetation on the median, which is now an annual event.
CAT lasted about two years before it ran out of steam. But Macbain kept going. She stumbled upon similar efforts in Ajo, an unincorporated community in Pima County about two hours west of Tucson. Ajo was years ahead on its revitalization plans.
The New Cornelia copper mine in Ajo closed in the mid-1980s, and many families left town following the loss of their jobs and homes. The mining company sold the remaining homes to seasonal residents. The economy stalled.
In 1993, members of the Tohono O’odham Nation and residents of Ajo and Sonora, Mexico, formed the International Sonoran Desert Alliance to focus on community, culture and the environment. The group, which is located in Ajo, works in desert conservation, cultural preservation and economic development.
Over the course of the next decade, the alliance worked with local residents and a group called Ajo Vision to come up with plans to improve their community and preserve the history of the town.
The Curley School, a public school that no longer was in use, became the centerpiece of the revitalization strategy. With nearly $10 million raised by the alliance, the school’s classrooms became home for 30 artists and artisans, who get affordable studios where they can live and work.
Since the Curley School Artisan Apartments opened in 2007, the alliance added a gallery, clay studio, woodworking shop, commercial kitchen and conference center. And the school campus wasn’t the only project; the alliance purchased the town plaza in 2008. Now, both the school and plaza are on the National Register of Historic Places.
San Manuel and Ajo are not the same.
“There’s a saying that if you’ve seen one rural community, you’ve seen one rural community,” said Liza Noland, who worked in rural development at Local First Arizona and helped San Manuel’s revitalization efforts.
But they shared enough similarities that Ajo could be an example. Both were unincorporated towns where a mine shut down and decimated the local economy. Both were rural. Both had enough locals with energy who wanted to make changes.
Local First saw potential in San Manuel because San Manuel saw potential in itself. Local First helped facilitate meetings with residents and get the revitalization coalition set up as a nonprofit with its own bylaws. Aaron Cooper, the Ajo alliance’s executive director, was part of a team organized by Local First that worked with San Manuel residents to establish the revitalization coalition.
“They found it helpful to see that a lot of these things are doable. On the front end, it can seem pretty overwhelming,” Cooper said. “The desire to see a huge shift can take 10 to 15 years down the road, so being able to see (what happened in Ajo) was helpful for them to be able to build morale and support.”
Early in the process, San Manuel coalition members gravitated toward flashy redevelopment projects, but Cooper advised them to make sure the organizations they selected were plugged into the community and had the ability to gain momentum and trust. Start small and build from there.
Building trust by not incorporating
Initially, most residents thought the goal was to incorporate the town. An early town hall meeting drew more than 100 people who were, at best, skeptical. They thought incorporation was on the table, or perhaps something like a homeowners association, Noland said.
Incorporation was never the goal. It couldn’t be.
If San Manuel were to incorporate, the cost of taking over their own utilities, fire and law enforcement would bankrupt the community, San Manuel Revitalization Corporation board president Kennedy Ivy said. And while the town has a net worth of $10 million, most of it is held by the school district, Ivy said.
With a fire district, sheriff substation, airport and 3,700 residents all located within the unincorporated area’s 1.5 square miles, the potential taxpayers couldn’t afford to support incorporation, Ivy said.
“It took a lot of convincing to show them there was no interest in incorporating the town and that we’re simply here to improve the lives of our community. It took a solid year,” Ivy said. “A lot of people, you’ll hear them say, ‘We like San Manuel the way it is; we don’t want it to change.’ I counter that with, ‘If you're not growing, you’re dying.’”
The revitalization coalition wrote its own bylaws. The initial proponents worked to win over skeptics. They made sure the 15-person elected board represented key parts of the population, including the senior center and a youth member.
CAT lady Macbain, for instance, is now a representative on the board of the revitalization coalition, acting on behalf of the Copper Town Association. Jessie David runs a local Facebook group. The mother of seven started going to meetings to share what was happening with the Facebook group and, like many, was skeptical at first. She eventually became the board’s secretary.
“It worked. We listened to what people had to say and acted on it. Now we get calls from people around the county and state wanting to be a part of it,” Ivy said. “It’s a testament to doing the right thing.”
Since the coalition started in 2020, the town has brought in several new businesses, including a marijuana grow operation and a grocery store supported in part by a thrift store. During the pandemic, they helped local kids get wifi access extended to the school parking lot. They organized a National Night Out, movie nights and prescription drug collections. They have cleaned up trash. They are rebuilding park equipment.
All of these improvements stemmed from what the community said they needed: They had a trash problem, not because people were unclean, but because trash collection costs were high. Families wanted more options for their kids and fewer drugs. They needed better internet access to work and go to school. They wanted to be able to work and shop in town.
On the last Saturday of each month, the board gathers at the community center, which was recently reopened thanks to the group’s efforts. A newly painted mural on the building’s exterior depicts a brightly colored desertscape with javelina, a tortoise and cacti in the center, flanked by a cactus wren on each side. In the foreground on the bottom are depictions of the area’s most popular activities: UTVs and shooting, a nod to future hopes to make San Manuel an adventure destination.
Inside the March meeting, dozens of local residents listened as the board went through its agenda. Several in the audience piped up to share problems they’re having, like expensive sewer bills and encounters with stray dogs. They talked about carpooling to the Arizona Capitol to weigh in on a bill at a committee hearing. They looked for a DJ for the highly anticipated chili cook-off, set for a month later at the town’s airport.
To put it simply, the residents got a voice. Without a town, there’s no central place to bring your concerns. Residents in San Manuel could call the county for help, but they had no centralized voice. Ivy told the crowd he was gathering testimonies and documents about the sewer bills to try to get improvements. As a whole, helping each other, they could maybe force a change.
Everything during the meetings is run by volunteers. The board members are not paid. They set up and break down chairs before and after the meetings. They plan events and community engagement, like helping local kids get prom dresses and organizing a chili cook-off, which is expected to be an annual event.
Big plans, hot-button issues
Since late April, a newly completed mural by Tucson artist Alejandra Trujillo has adorned the side of the community center, the second new mural in the area.
Another new mural, this one at Elks Lodge, was organized in large part by Macbain’s granddaughter, Hannah Smallhouse. It tells the story of San Manuel in three frames.
Macbain said the community has improved leaps and bounds since her arrival nearly a decade ago, when the park was in shambles and there was no community center.
While much of the initial skepticism has worn off, the coalition still has big projects in mind and some hot-button issues to contend with. An empty swimming pool, for instance, remains a hotly contested part of San Manuel, with Macbain and others wanting to redevelop it to a destination aquatic center, similar to that in Oro Valley.
So far, Ivy and others on the revitalization committee are opposed, largely due to the expense, but it does not seem like the issue will be going away anytime soon. The empty pool stands out like a beacon. Most everyone has an opinion on the issue.
James Mallot lived and attended school in San Manuel from fourth through 10th grade, moving away with his mother and returning to the area three years ago after meeting his wife.
“I very much enjoyed it when I was here, so I decided to buy a house here,” Mallot said.
Mallot isn’t as happy living in this version of San Manuel compared to that of his childhood, saying the school has gone “way downhill,” with underqualified teachers. With a son in second grade, Mallot is hopeful that better teachers are a part of the community’s future. He’s also displeased with the school’s refusal to repair the pool, which he says falls under its purview.
“They say it’s because it’ll cost $10,000, but I don’t see how that’s too much of an issue for them to do,” he said. “If they repair the pool and get it up and running, they can get that money back. I know people would love to go there. I would love to go there again.”
Growing up, Mallot was a member of the swim and track team, both of which are no longer active.
“They should still do something for the kids that want to join, because it’ll get the kids active,” Mallot said. “Those (teams) were a huge part of what got me through high school with my sanity intact.”
Still, when it comes to the revitalization committee’s efforts, Mallot has nothing but praise.
“They’re holding a lot of events that are bringing the community together, and I think that’s a great thing,” he said.
There’s just something about this place
Board president Ivy is not a San Manuel native, but he might as well be, given his dedication to the town. Ivy grew up in San Diego, joined the Navy and moved to Arizona, eventually making his way to San Manuel.
“I fell in love with the town. There’s a spirit here I haven’t found anywhere else,” Ivy said. “I took an interest in things here and decided to help people out in the way I knew how at the time.”
He read up on local history. He started a construction business. He’s raising his kids there. One day, a woman whom he was working for invited him to a meeting.
“I said, ‘Why not?’ A couple months later, I ended up as president of the coalition,” Ivy said.
On a drive around town, the ponytailed young dad can point out any landmark — the old school buildings, the depleted strip mall — and tell you its backstory while sharing his ideas for how it could be part of San Manuel’s future. He now works for Pinal County, where his connectedness with the local area pays off.
Kevin Cavanaugh, the Pinal County Supervisor whose district includes San Manuel, said he came to town while campaigning and saw an area “withering on the vine.” But even in unincorporated communities, there’s a de facto mayor. That was Ivy, Cavanaugh said. Over the past few years, he has seen San Manuel find its future. He helped the woman who started the small grocery store sketch out a business plan on her whiteboard. He worked to get permits quickly for the marijuana grow operation.
“Things are getting done. People are getting motivated. They’re like, no more are we going to be a rundown community where drug dealers run down the streets, where people are parking on the sidewalks. Finally, people said, I’ve had enough,” Cavanaugh said.
Cavanaugh’s district will not include San Manuel anymore because of redistricting, but the Coolidge man sees other nearby areas that could operate on the same model.
Although the San Manuel model is different from Ajo’s, which also includes a GED program, workforce development and more, Cooper, of Ajo, believes it could translate to other unincorporated areas.
When people are upset or skeptical about change, there’s usually love for the community below the surface, Cooper said.
“And if you love a place,” he said, the question becomes “what’s important about the place and how do we curate that?”
Ivy wants San Manuel’s success to translate to other unincorporated areas, too. He knows San Manuel has a lot more work to do — he wants people to be able to stay in town to work, get food and have fun — he doesn’t want to stop at San Manuel.
“We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into something that only works in our town, because when you get to that point, eventually it stops working,” he said. “If we could work for other communities that are just starting out the way (Cooper) came out and worked with us, we could create this chain-reaction of communities building communities.”
The start of what’s to come
April 23 became a key date in the San Manuel Revitalization Coalition’s dawning history: It was the chili cook-off, held on a sunny day at the San Manuel airport. Signs lining the highways pointed the way with a bright yellow arrow.
Vendors with tents sold soaps, art, knives. A live band played crowd favorites. People tasted chili from five cook-off teams and scored it on cards, with chili winners snagging a trophy with a chili pot on it and a tote bag that said, “You may call me the chili champ.”
Jessie David, the board’s secretary, helped pull together the new San Manuel’s big event.
“I'm not from San Manuel, but my husband is, and I’ve always loved this little town and raising our seven children in it,” she said. “I want to see it grow for my children but still be the same small-town feel.”
At the festival, kids found something to do: They stuffed their faces in a pie-eating contest as their parents looked on, cheering.
As the wind whipped through the airport, causing some awnings to go flying, neighbors grabbed hold and helped each other stay grounded.
All told, a couple hundred people showed up to eat chili and tacos and spend time together outside.
For a maiden event, it was a great first step. Ivy wants to see even more in the future: more people, more things to do, more community.
But they had to start somewhere. And attendees at the event, along with its planners, said they couldn’t have seen something like this chili cook-off happening before the coalition got started.
Next year will be even better.