Conflict in Commerce

For competing groups, being 'pro-business' depends on where you hang your hat

In the rolling rangeland around Sonoita, Elgin and Patagonia, taking care of business once meant rounding up the herd. These days, those tiny towns southeast of Tucson rely on city escapees who arrive to watch birds, linger in wineries or even buy a picturesque patch of property.

Those key pillars of prosperity are not lost on the Sonoita/Elgin Arizona Chamber of Commerce, which touts its home with the slogan, "a short drive from where you are, to where you want to be."

That's why the chamber is more than a bit unhappy over the chance that their "short drive" along lovely State Route 83—a designated scenic highway—could soon include dodging scores of enormous mine rigs, with less-than-tantalizing views of mine tailings as a backdrop.

Despite their vigorous opposition to the proposed Rosemont copper mine, business folks in this bucolic area often find themselves overwhelmed by the remarkable public-relations machine of the Augusta Resource Corporation. Although the Canadian company has never dug a pit, it's spending a king's ransom to persuade the public that it should be allowed to do so here.

Adding insult, the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has essentially thrown the economic concerns of these rural communities under the proverbial ore truck.

Tom Rogos owns a bed-and-breakfast near the Santa Ritas, and is current president of the Sonoita/Elgin chamber. He tries to be diplomatic about the almost-giddy support from the Tucson business community for a mine that could wreak havoc on businesses such as his own.

"Obviously, everyone is entitled to their opinion," Rogos says of the Tucson chamber. "It doesn't affect them as directly as it does us. They're not going to see it. They're not going to have to drive by it every day and see the scars left on the land."

Along with his concerns about dust, water depletion and a blemished view, Rogos says that visitors hoping for a leisurely drive along narrow, winding State 83 will instead face a white-knuckle ordeal. "They'll be encountering huge truckloads of stuff all day long," he says. "It is just not a good, safe situation."

After he was tapped in April to head the Tucson chamber, former Las Vegas civic leader Mike Varney wasted little time in reaffirming the group's support for Augusta's plans. Today, he continues to downplay the concerns of Rogos and other rural business leaders. He contends that, from the road, the mine will appear as nothing more than gentle contours fashioned from mine tailings.

Varney also parrots the latest spin from Augusta, namely that nearby businesses will actually be buoyed by visitors eager to tour the pit.

The fact that there might be disagreement over the mine is hardly earth-shaking, Varney says.

"A common misperception is that chambers all see the world the same way," he says, "and all have the same issues and the same agendas. Frankly, that's not really true. When you get past the surface, you find that each chamber has its own unique character and priorities. It is not at all unusual for chambers to differ on their opinions."

Opinions—or naked self-interest? "Well ... our self-interest is in creating jobs for people," Varney says, "and allowing a company that follows the rules to go into business without artificial impediments."

He contends that a mine in the Santa Ritas could directly employ some 400 folks, with another 1,600 employed in related businesses.

But according to critics, those widely touted numbers come with a couple of big caveats. First, given the traditionally cyclical and increasingly mechanized nature of mining, it's hardly clear that Augusta would need that many warm bodies to run its pit, or that it could offer them continuous employment.

Either way, Thomas Power considers the pro-jobs argument to be enormously shortsighted.

He should know. The retired University of Montana economics professor has spent the last 30 years researching rural economies. In 2010, he was hired by the Mountain Empire Action Alliance—made up of local residents who oppose the Augusta project—to analyze its potential impacts.

His analysis was a dash of cold water on the pro-mine rhetoric. "First of all, the number of jobs we know would be created are quite small," Power says. "It's between 375 and 450, depending upon what year you look at."

Other projections tossed around by Augusta proponents "are guesstimates at best," he says. "When people get the job count up to 2,400 or 3,200 or something like that, they're just turning the crank on a computer-based model that's not really economics at all. It's just public relations."

More significant, says Power, is the negative impact on an economy largely driven by a few key components—including the region's attractiveness as a place to visit and live.

His research shows that a sprawling open-pit mine so close to Tucson and a scenic tourist destination would have a direct, negative impact.

"There is a reason that mining communities in general are not prosperous," he says. "The reason lies in the up-and-down nature of mining, which is driven by ore prices on the worldwide market.

"It doesn't lead to population growth or expansion of low unemployment rates. The statistics for mining economies are pretty grim. So if you're looking for something that's going to provide a stable, ongoing source of economic vitality, you don't want to bet a lot on mining."

To the folks in Sonoita and Elgin, the mine's impact is clear, Power says. "They are focused on the visitor economy, or they are focused on the ex-urban people who have moved into the area and provided it with some economic vitality. They see (the mine) as a direct hit on that."

At the same time, he says, such a mine would contradict the larger economic thrust of the Tucson metro area—symbolized by the millions of dollars voters have directed toward expanding open space through the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

"That's why civic and government leaders are upset about the idea of putting a large open-pit mine in the surrounding landscape," Power says. "It just goes in the opposite direction of the policies they've had in place for a long time, the investments they've been making for a long time. They want to allow a healthy rate of growth without destroying the very landscapes that are attracting people."

Tom Rogos won't argue with that, even as he contemplates a potential catastrophe that nonetheless enjoys backing from business leaders 45 minutes away in Tucson. "We're certainly not expecting any positive impacts from a mine," he says.