Ryan Stanton, rstanton@ExplorerNews.com

Nov. 16, 2005 - When Ora Harn heard about the mission of the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, she wanted in on it. She saw how well it fit with Marana's plans for its Heritage Park.

Marana's mayor emeritus celebrated her birthday last week by hosting an open house inside town hall, showcasing a bold vision for preserving the area's agrarian roots.

Harn has been working closely with consultants to plan the town's Heritage Park along the Santa Cruz River. In the meantime, she's joined the board of the heritage alliance, which is lobbying Congress to designate the Santa Cruz Valley as a National Heritage Area.

The proposed 3,300-square-mile area follows the Santa Cruz River watershed, stretching from Nogales at the Mexico border up to Marana at the Pima-Pinal county line. The federal recognition of the area could mean as much as $1 million a year in grants that Marana could compete to get its hands on for the Heritage Park, said Jonathan Mabry, chairman of the heritage alliance.

Harn pointed out that the Santa Cruz River ends once it gets to Marana, so "we are both the beginning and the end." Marana would serve as the northern gateway into the heritage area, which likely would increase tourism and tax revenues, she said.

"It's going to help this community economically because it's going to bring people into our community," she told a crowd of a few dozen local and regional dignitaries Nov. 8.

Several consultants presented Marana council members with updated plans for the town's Heritage Park during a study session after the open house.

Architect and historian Harris Sobin has been researching information about the Producers Cotton Oil Co. buildings along Sandario Road, which the town wants to reconstruct at its Heritage Park. Built in 1938, the two cotton gin buildings - an office and a warehouse - are relatively simple mud adobe structures, but they're emblematic of Marana's agrarian roots.

Sobin informed the council that even before the buildings were used by Producers Cotton Oil Co., they were an important part of Cortaro Farms, which established some 10,000 acres of cotton fields and had "its own little empire" in Marana during its cotton heyday. Cortaro Water Users Association and Marana Insurance Co. also set up shop in the office building, he said.

Pictures of the gin from 1938 show the office in its original state, complete with a 15-foot cooling tower and a skylight in its cotton grading room. A three-sided glass casement in one room provided observers a view of the scales outside that weighed cotton bales as they came in on wagons, Sobin said.

Sobin presented town officials with three options for reconstruction of the buildings at Marana's Heritage Park, the first of which included moving the two buildings at a cost of more than $900,000. The second option included reconstructing the buildings for about $627,000 by using the mud adobe units, while a third option proposed using new cement stabilized adobe with about a $700,000 pricetag.

Sobin told council members the cement stabilized adobe would be less prone to weathering and said the town could hire Tucson Adobe West, located in Marana, to do the work. The town council was expected to meet earlier this week to give direction on which route to pursue, but indicated last week that it was in support of the third option.

Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said the town has about $1 million worth of bonds to use for its Heritage Park, about $600,000 of which is waiting to be spent. The council was expected this week to vote on a conceptual plan and give specific direction on development of the park.

"It's something I hold very dearly and I'm very interested in our heritage," said Mayor Ed Honea. "Hopefully, within a year or two, we'll have these buildings up and we'll have the catalyst to make that Heritage Park prosper."

Barbara Strelke, a consultant with the Encore Planning Group in Tucson, worked with town officials to refine the northern portion of the Heritage Park site plan during the past several months. Since the draft plan was created two years ago, the town acquired new land that changed the park's border to the north.

As shown in plans, the main north entry is now expected to include monuments and other public art, while a demonstration garden would greet visitors to the west. Pavilion areas inside the park will be available to the public for weddings, special events, arts and crafts fairs, and farmers markets, Strelke said.

"We worked a year and a half to do some preliminary planning and it looks like we're pulling everything together," Harn said after the meeting. "Marana's Heritage Park is going to be another historically exciting event for the town of Marana."

Mabry said the heritage alliance plans to push forward to have Congress dedicate the heritage area soon. During a presentation to the town council, he said the Santa Cruz Valley has been inhabited since 11000 B.C, making it one of the oldest civilized areas in the United States.

Evidence exists to suggest cotton farming in Marana dates back 3,000 years and some of the oldest canals can be found in Marana, said Mabry, a consultant with the nonprofit Center for Desert Archaeology in Tucson.

The Santa Cruz Valley as a whole has 4,000 years of agricultural history and is one of the longest continuously cultivated regions in the United States, he said.

"We definitely have a lot to be proud of in terms of the history in this area and the National Heritage Area is really an opportunity for showcasing a lot of cultural, historical, agricultural and recreational assets in our community," said Jim DeGrood, Marana's executive assistant to the town manager. "It is an advantage to this region to have it dedicated."

For more information about the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, visit www.santacruzheritage.org.

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