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Ajo hopes to revitalize its economy by building an artist enclave.

Changing from a copper town to a creative community is what residents of Ajo are counting on for the future. They hope artists replace miners as their economic bedrock.

Ajo, located 130 miles west of Tucson, was known for its rich ore deposits before it became part of the United States in 1854. For more than a century, the earth supplied both profits and population growth, and by 1960, the town had more than 7,000 residents. But in 1986, the huge open-pit mines shut down.

With the closure came economic decline. People moved away, and now, unincorporated Ajo has a population of about 3,700. Those that remain have long been searching for an industry to replace mining.

The one million tourists who pass through town on their way to Rocky Point or to enjoy one of the nearby national desert areas supply some revenue, as do the folks who make their winter homes in Ajo. But hoping for stable, year-round commerce, residents are now looking at the arts to "act as a catalyst for economic re-development and be a source of pride and excitement for the community," according to a statement by the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, which is coordinating the project.

A few years ago, hundreds of people turned out to discuss the future of Ajo, and the primary idea that emerged was the transformation of the former Curley School into artist live/work space. Nestled on a low knoll overlooking the town's central plaza, the 1919-era Mission-style building and its adjacent structures offer 134,000 square feet of space.

The proposal is to convert the long-vacant historic property into 50 affordable artist live/work space loft-style apartments. Also included would be use of the school's auditorium as a community facility, developing offices for arts organizations and having some shops.

Estimated to cost $10 million, the project would be paid for mainly through the federal government's low-income housing tax credit program. Historic tax credits along with the rental stream on the space would make up the balance.

Tracy Taft was instrumental in the community's decision to pursue the concept, and says the proposed redevelopment project combined with existing music and other cultural groups should tip the balance enough so the arts become an attraction for Ajo. In addition, she thinks the residents at Curley School could help with arts programming in the local school district, which now offers almost no such programming.

From his perspective, project director Terry Gonzales says, "Some artists find a unique character in Ajo with its close access to the desert and its pristine environment. They prefer its different kind of lifestyle.

Others see the project's potential for showcasing in one location the creativity of three nations: the United States, Mexico and the Tohono O'odham.

"It will allow a blending of cultures, and will be one-of-a-kind in Arizona," says Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson, who represents the Ajo area.

To determine whether the proposal is economically realistic, Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects, Inc. has been hired as development consultants. They are working with the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, which employs Gonzales.

As part of the planning program, a $110,000 grant-funded feasibility study has just entered a critical phase. Almost 10,000 questionnaires were recently mailed to artists across the state to see if some of them might be seriously interested in living and working in Ajo.

Local artist Stephen Eye will be one of those receiving a survey

"It sounds like a wonderful idea," he says. "The location is an issue. There's not a big potential for retail sales, so that's an iffy proposition. But I hope it happens. The more artist communities we have, the better. I wish them the best of luck."

Once the surveys are returned, they will be reviewed along with the results of a site analysis and housing market study. By the end of June, Gonzales expects a decision about proceeding to the next stage in the process.

Bronson is very supportive of the project and thinks Ajo is the perfect location for it.

"This could be a model for other rural communities across the nation, especially in the West," she says.

Project supporters are hoping the questionnaires reveal real interest from a large number of artists. But even if that doesn't happen, Gonzales thinks the proposal can still move toward a November 2004 implementation start date. He says the project could be done in phases or initially have less housing units.

But Gonzales believes the project needs to go forward.

"It will give Ajo an economy," he says, "plus the whole town finds Curley School a treasure. If it isn't preserved, it will be gone, just like Ajo."

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