Jan. 11, 2006 - There's a new acronym being thrown around Marana's town hall: MWEC.

Pronounced "M-Weck," it stands for the Marana Western Events Center, a potentially 5,000-seat arena for rodeos and other special events in northern Marana.

It's a pet project of Mayor Ed Honea, who wants to see the old farm town he grew up in hold onto its Western roots. Rodeo and ranching have been a part of Marana's cowboy character since Honea, himself, was old enough to hop on a horse and ride.

His parents, who still live in northern Marana, can tell stories about the time their teenage son accidentally rode his horse into a clothesline or, on another unfortunate occasion, into the bowels of an old septic tank.

But Honea would rather talk about the future, which continues to look bright for Marana.

As the town experiences breakneck growth, Honea hopes to build the single largest rodeo facility in Southern Arizona - rivaled only by WestWorld, more than 100 miles away in Scottsdale.

"Although Marana is urbanizing and we support that, we're trying to maintain some of our past," Honea said. "People are excited about what's going on, and I think it's going to be phenomenal."

The idea for the MWEC was proposed at the council's annual retreat in October, and it's being planned for development near the Marana Wastewater Treatment Facility along Trico-Marana Road. It's still conceptual, though some town officials say they hope to expedite the project and have it underway this year.

Honea said the project would require a trade with Tucson, which owns about 160 acres of farm property that Marana has its sights on. Marana is considering trading some potable water for the property, though such a deal would need approval from both councils.

"Do we want to do it? Yes. Do we think it's going to happen? Sure," Honea said, though he said the town is still working on the technicalities.

"We've had a couple meetings where we kind of kicked the idea around, but we haven't formally closed a deal with the city," he said. "Hopefully, that'll happen in January or February."

Honea said the town is seeking between $8 million and $15 million from developers and through grants to have the MWEC constructed in the next two years.

Honea envisions three arenas in all: One large covered arena could seat 4,000 to 5,000 and be used for major events, while two secondary arenas could play host to smaller events.

It would be a similar concept to Scottsdale's city-operated WestWorld, though Marana wouldn't have quite as many arenas, Honea said. Marana would cater to events such as horse shows, dog shows and car shows - almost everything except monster truck rallies that could damage the grounds, he said.

"We've got a lot of philosophies and a lot of ideas, but the whole purpose is to provide entertainment for families and young people," he said.

With residential development encroaching on Marana's town hall area, Honea said, the rodeo grounds could provide a venue for the town's annual Independence Day celebration within the next two years.

Councilman Tim Escobedo, who grew up in the Marana area, has been supportive of creating a rodeo facility second to none in Southern Arizona.

"We're lifers here," Escobedo said, reminiscing on the days when the town once held rodeos outside Lil Abner's restaurant and behind the old courthouse building on Sanders Road.

The town has been able to maintain its roots with the Western Heritage Rodeo Arena on the east side of Marana Middle School. The facility hosts several weekly equestrian events, though school officials say that will disappear in a few years to make way for a new high school.

Aside from the rodeo grounds off Inter state 10 in Tucson, there isn't another major rodeo facility within 100 miles, Honea said, citing his reasons for planning the arena now.

"It's a Marana thing and something we're very proud of, but it's going to be a regional amenity as well," he said.

If the town can't work out a deal with Tucson, Honea said, Marana is prepared to build an arena at the town's Heritage Park along the Santa Cruz River. Rather than let the concept die completely, the facility could be built there, though on a smaller scale.

Hope still remains that a deal can be reached with Tucson, though.

Tucson City Manager Mike Hein said his staff is working to hammer out the legalities of a possible trade that could result in several concessions to Tucson. Hein knew the property in question as the "Martin Farm," though he said last week he has yet to hear about any plans for a rodeo facility.

"Clearly, if we own an asset within another jurisdiction, we're very much open to discussing what that local community sees as an appropriate use of the asset," Hein said. "We're considering (the trade) at this time, and my goal would be to wrap up a comprehensive agreement."

Hein, who was Marana's town manager up until a few years ago, said he hopes to tackle a few other outstanding issues in the process. He wants to reach an agreement on the longstanding dispute over which government should get rights to 1,500 acre-feet of excess Central Arizona Project water from the Flowing Wells Irrigation District.

Flowing Wells promised the water supply to Marana about three years ago. However, Tucson went to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, claiming it had next dibs. The state has let the issue drag on for a year now.

"Obviously, they're separate issues, but I would like to come to the table with a comprehensive approach," Hein said. "I'd like to recommend a joint mayor-and-council meeting between the two jurisdictions and I'd like to resolve some of these issues as soon as practically possible."

Honea didn't sound as optimistic last week that Marana and Tucson could resolve the CAP feud before the deal for the Martin Farm goes through, saying he hopes the land trade can happen quickly.

Chris Avery, of the city attorney's office, has been working on the legalities of the trade and said the concept is simple: "Marana would deliver us some water we would otherwise have to pay for, and we would deliver them land they would otherwise have to pay for."

Negotiating a solution that resolves all outstanding issues is another story, though. Tucson is trying to get Marana to build a well near the new library and district park being built in Continental Ranch. That well would tap Marana's ground water and serve Tucson Water customers.

"I understand Marana has big plans for the (future rodeo site), but they don't own it and until we get our issues resolved, they're not going to own it," Avery said.

There may be some irony to the situation, too. The farm property Marana has big plans for was bought by Tucson in the 1970s - back when the city made an aggressive drive to purchase land in the Avra Valley for the valuable groundwater below.

Marana incorporated in 1977 to stave off Tucson's advances and protect its water supply. Its plans for the future now appear to hinge on the same piece of land that may have been a fundamental impetus for the formation of the town.

Avery said Marana could potentially acquire the northern half of the Martin Farm, which would total more than 100 acres but not quite 160. Honea said the town would use half of the property for its rodeo facility and the Tucson Audubon Society would get the other half, which lies in the dense mesquite bosque.

While the entire property lies in the flood plain of the Santa Cruz River, Honea said, that wouldn't restrict the town from building the facility because no one would live onsite. Through drainage canals and easements, he said, it's likely the town could get the property removed from the flood plain.

The town council recently decided against buying a 110-by-300-foot covered arena for the MWEC from an equestrian facility in Scottsdale. Escobedo and Planning Commissioner Jon Post visited the site in December and recommended that the town pull from its reserve funds to pay Busby Metal Inc. $242,000 for the covered arena.

Anticipating the acquisition of the Martin Farm property, town officials acted quickly to place the purchase on the Dec. 6 consent agenda for council approval. Council members had a change of heart and unanimously voted to remove the item from the agenda once they got to the meeting.

"It was a heck of a deal," Escobedo said. "But it was just at the wrong time."

Escobedo said he hopes to create a nonprofit foundation through which the town can generate funds for the MWEC. The town could "start small" and spend $3 million to $4 million in the first year, he said.

Honea said he expects thousands of dollars to spill off into the town's coffers from sales tax revenue related to rodeo visitors who stay in Marana hotels and dine at Marana restaurants. He said the town would charge a fee to attend events.

WestWorld was recently at risk of losing some of its signature events to competing facilities, in part because of parking issues. When the dozens of acres of state trust land used as parking were auctioned off by the state, the Scottsdale City Council found itself spending $79 million to purchase about 150 acres of desert to ensure WestWorld's future. The city issued bonds to pay for the land, pushing its debt load over $400 million, the highest in Scottsdale's history.

Honea said he's taking steps to ensure Marana's events center will have adequate parking in the future and will avoid such emergency measures that dig into Marana taxpayers' wallets.

The property on which Marana wants to build the MWEC lies next to a county wastewater treatment facility, which requires a quarter-mile buffer zone where no development is allowed. Honea said he's talking to the county and developer Wil Cardon, who owns another piece of land adjacent to the plant, about using the quarter-mile zone as parking space for the events center.

Ryan J. Stanton covers the town of Marana and the Marana Unified School District for the EXPLORER. He can be reached at 797-4384, ext. 110, or at rstanton@explorernews.com.

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