The monsoon has arrived, that remarkable season of shifted winds, wetter air and powerful thunderstorms that bring precious moisture to the desert.

For another season, the decades piling one on another, hard rain is pounding Steam Pump Ranch. The Town of Oro Valley has tarped the old steam pump building itself, and other buildings on the historic property have been relatively protected from the relentless effect of fast water.

One more step in Steam Pump's preservation has been reached. A state panel has approved of Oro Valley's application to federal authorities for designation as a national historic site. If and when Steam Pump Ranch becomes historically recognized, federal funds can flow toward its eventual restoration and re-use.

The Oro Valley Town Council committed $410,000 in its new fiscal budget to stabilize Steam Pump Ranch structures. That was a difficult decision, one of many the council faced this year. Those dollars are being pulled from the town's $13.5 million general fund reserve, and Steam Pump won't be the last need for which reserves are eyed. It's raining in Oro Valley, and across Southern Arizona, and when revenues slow, we all turn to our savings accounts.

A month or so ago, Councilman Kenneth "KC" Carter suggested Oro Valley hang onto $250,000 of those $410,000 targeted for Steam Pump Ranch emergency stabilization. Publicly, he wondered if a little less money could accomplish the task of keeping buildings intact.

Carter's motion failed 4-3. "Steam Pump is a one-time use," and that's why the reserves exist, Councilman Bill Garner said. "We made a commitment as a community."

The council made a good decision in keeping the budget line intact. But Carter's question was certainly worth the asking. The sum of $410,000 is always real money. It's an absolute mountain of cash when budgets are squeezed tight.

And you think 410,000 is a lot of frogs? Try $8 million, one of the estimates on total rehabilitation and restoration of Steam Pump Ranch. Oro Valley will be digging at every potential funding source, within and without, to make a project like that happen.

Yet it should happen.

Never mind that Steam Pump Ranch is integral to the community's history. Never mind its big trees and spectacular views. Set aside for a minute its cool if quirky buildings. Forget the huge buildings of active commerce that are close by.

Steam Pump Ranch can become a gathering place for a community that needs one, a place of learning for generations that can use enlightenment, and an attraction for people to come, and visit, and stay.

We saw some of that potential at Oro Valley's 35th birthday party, when Steam Pump was cleaned up, and people came for cowboy poetry, walking tours, a petting zoo, recitations of history and demonstrations of old crafts. The birthday celebration, a well-done event by the town and its leadership, offered a glimpse of what could be.

But it's got to be done right. Buildings must be well-restored (and parts eliminated). New facilities must be developed for people to attend classes, or lectures, or to paint or write.

Places in good ol' Wyoming come to mind, places of re-use like Ucross, a working ranch that is now an artists' retreat, or the Sinks Canyon Field Station, a former orchard that now hosts college classes in an idyllic setting.

You can't rehabilitate Steam Pump and let it sit. It needs to host an annual birthday party. It has to be used. It has to be vital. That's how it's survived decades of monsoon rain. Fix up Steam Pump Ranch, and use it anew.


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