June 28, 2006 - Twenty years ago, sleepy-eyed Russell Dove bought a bar in Old Marana, naming it after a sign he found stuffed in a beat-up box.

La Tumbleweed Lounge became the quintessential local bar, with regulars in the stools and signs like the one that reads: "How much can I get away with and still go to Heaven?"

An electric board scrolls the names of customers who wrote bad checks, and billiard balls seem to discharge only after a shake of the 75-cent pool tables.

Dove still lives in a humble house just beyond the backdoor of the barroom at 13915 N. Sandario Road. A former "oil worker," the 72-year-old Wyoming native wants to retire.

After putting "the Tumbleweed" on the market, a Tucson chef offered $500,000 in cash.

Dove agreed to take $525,000, but the buyer reneged after hearing of the town's plans to transform the Interstate 10 interchange at Marana Road, Dove said.

A draft of the plans shows Sandario Road cut off from the interstate, which currently feeds right into the businesses that line the two-lane road.

"One weekend, there was a town employee in here having beers," Dove recalled. "I won't say who, but he said the whole place would be bulldozed."

Dove drew Xs across Sandario Road on a town map he hung on his office door.

"I feel like they're shafting us in this deal. This is my retirement. I'm 72 years old, you know, and bars get to you."

Like Dove, other business owners in Old Marana feel left out of the town's big picture. Surrounded by prime commercial and residential real estate, these mainstay businesses could fall through the cracks as the town appeases big developers who can provide more tax dollars, they said.

Not true, according to Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat.

About 4,000 cars use the Marana Road exit each day. That number will explode to 40,000 or 60,000 in a few years when the town's planned loop roads get built, Reuwsaat said.

Tangerine Farms Road and Luckett Road eventually will tie into Marana Road, which the town will expand to eight lanes. Work on the Tangerine loop road should begin later this year. Nearby residential developments will bring thousands of new residents into the fold.

To prepare, the town continues to work on plans for new roads and the realignment of others, including Sandario.

A working draft shows Marana Road taking interstate traffic to a stoplight about a quarter of a mile away from Sandario. Motorists would have to make a loop onto Sandario to reach the businesses, which include two service stations.

"We looked at 12 different options," Reuwsaat said. "This one works the best."

Business owners heard the plans through the grapevine and confronted town officials, who then formed a "Sandario Road Advisory Committee" to get input from the local businesses. The first meeting took place in April in the backroom of the Tumbleweed, about two miles from Marana town hall.

Officials cancelled a meeting last week so a new engineer could look at the road plans, Reuwsaat said.

"I think it sucks," said Bill Hamm, who owns the laundromat on Sandario. "I think it's unnecessary."

Retired from the Air Force, Hamm bought the laundromat in 1997, becoming its fifth owner. The 56-year-old stripped and remodeled the "dump," installing some of Maytag's best top- and front-loaders.

Hamm met his wife in the laundromat.

"I'm here because I like the small-town environment," he said. "Why would anyone want to take this small town and make another Tucson?"

Hamm hopes to get his money's worth by eventually selling the business.

"If I sold today, I could get $150,000," he said. "But I'm not ready. I've mortgaged everything I own to get this going, and I'm still paying for it."

Until this year, the tight-knit group of business owners thought Sandario would become Marana's "main street," a four-lane, divided thoroughfare.

They noted that their businesses set at least 90 feet from the road, providing room for expansion.

That still could happen in some form, though the town probably will not add lanes to Sandario, Planning Director Barbara Berlin said.

"Sandario Road has the capability to develop into a more traditional downtown area," Reuwsaat said. "We'll redevelop Sandario to incorporate it into a larger business sector."

With big-time commercial development looming in northern Marana, the trick becomes: "How do you redevelop (Sandario) so that it has its own ambience?" Reuwsaat said.

"It's our duty to see that businesses there are successful, if not more successful than they are now."

The town will help businesses deal with any changes, Reuwsaat said. He recommended the town give businesses about $400,000, the amount left over from the town's recently repealed half-cent sales tax.

R&R Pizza owner Linda Molitor still worries. Twenty percent of her customers come directly off the interstate, she said.

"And a lot of my customers live on the other side of the tracks. If it becomes a hassle getting here, I'm afraid I'll lose a lot of regulars."

Many of her regulars work for the town, including Reuwsaat, who celebrated his 50th birthday there earlier this year.

Molitor opened the pizza parlor almost 10 years ago. Last August, she spent $90,000 to remodel, more than doubling the size of its dining room.

"The town said they would make this a four-lane road," Molitor explained, pointing out her front window. "Why aren't they doing it? In my opinion, they're trying to push the small guys out and bring in the big businesses."

Sandario bisects several key pieces of property. To the northwest lies more than 1,000 acres, mostly owned by Tucson development company Diamond Ventures.

Working with Meritage Homes, Diamond Ventures has planned Sanders Grove, a 2,500-home development with a neighborhood shopping center anchored by a grocery store, Vice President David Goldstein said.

The firm has planned another retail site on 40 acres closer to the interstate.

Fry's Food Store soon will build in Gladden Farms, northern Marana's largest development.

"I'm not worried about Fry's," said Dan Dasher, who owns Marana Grocery Store at 13865 N. Sandario Road.

But he fears competition from Wal-Mart or other big discounters.

Aside from the service stations, Dasher's six-aisle store remains northern Maranans' only option for groceries.

A native Cambodian, Dasher bought the store in December, unaware of plans to change the interstate exit.

"I don't feel good about it, and I've only heard things from the others here. I haven't heard from the town."

Dasher heard "a rumor" from Hamm, who runs the laundromat out of a small wing connected to the grocery store.

"He's my landlord," Hamm said. "If he goes out of business, I go out of business."

About 450 acres west of Sandario could become a high-tech and education corridor, said landowner Susan Ong, a broker with Broadstone Commercial Real Estate Inc.

The company talked with Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona about building campuses on the property. Marana Health Center also expressed interest in relocating from Sandario to the property, Ong said.

"We haven't fine tuned it yet, but our priorities are to create jobs and educational opportunities," she said.

The master-planned community will include residential and commercial development, too.

A realignment of Sandario could force the relocation of Circle K and Chevron. Currently, a car exiting northbound Interstate 10 needs only to make a left turn before reaching one of the two service stations.

Officials discussed installing a cul-de-sac between the two stations, but traffic still would have to loop onto a reconfigured Sandario Road.

"This is just a draft; it will change," Reuwsaat said.

The town could work with developers to help relocate the Circle K and Chevron, he added.

Circle K continues to talk with town officials, a spokeswoman said. She declined further comment.

"If they cut us off, we would have to relocate," Chevron Manager Bill Law said.

East of Sandario lie two other swaths of land, including the historic Producer's cotton gin site. The town recently tore down the site's adobe office building, planning to build a replica for its Heritage Park and Museum.

Tucson's Planning Center will design residential and commercial developments for much of that land. Farther south, Phoenix-based Westcor will build strip and auto malls on 295 acres between Tangerine Road and the interstate.

"There's going to be competition, but that's just growth," Mayor Ed Honea said. "I use all of these local businesses myself, and I think they'll be fine. Sandario isn't going away. You'll just go down 100 yards to the stoplight, and we'll put up signs for all that."

In business since 1999, Darrell's Carpenter Shop sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. Its blank, no-frills storefront gives it a vacant look.

Owner Darrell Kenworthy, though, always keeps the door cracked. The smell of sawdust wafts throughout the building, rented by Kenworthy. He and two employees create high-end custom cabinets for homes and businesses. They have done several jobs for town employees, recently making kitchen cabinets for Marana Utilities Director Brad DeSpain.

Kenworthy hoped to buy the property owned by Ted DeSpain, one of Marana's original town council members.

"I don't know, now," Kenworthy said. "When we first moved in here, there was a real nice community feel. Now, the town is growing by leaps and bounds, and I think they've lost sight of that."

The town has misled local business owners, said Mike Pierce, who opened his auto shop in 1991 at 13780 N. Sandario Road.

"Six years ago, I had people in my yard doing research. They set Sandario aside as a 'major meridian' capable of eight lanes. That's what they've been talking about for 20 years."

Pierce wants the town to look at an alternate plan that would keep Sandario directly linked to the interstate.

"They're listening to engineers and (developers)," Pierce said. "But I feel like if you yell loud enough you'll be heard."

The Marana interchange will remain intact for now, with any changes two to four years away, officials said.

"There's not a sense of emergency," Reuwsaat said. "It'll be fun to watch it develop."

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