WILLCOX — A nine-member Downtown Steering Committee made up of a variety of business leaders has formed with the intention of revitalizing the area from Railroad Avenue down to either end of Haskell Avenue.
City Manager Caleb Blaschke briefly discussed a few of the goals of the committee during the city council meeting on March 18.
Blaschke highlighted how plans for the downtown alleyways are being looked at and identifying the various types of districts in the area, for example, an entertainment district.
Blaschke added how they will be looking at how to repurpose old buildings as part of creating an entertainment district, so that if a vineyard or another business no longer uses the building then another owner can come in and use it. Wine tasting is a possibility as people can learn about wine as well as dining.
Blaschke reached out to the Herald/Review to explain how the Steering Committee’s meeting process will be configured in the future.
“They are not public meetings but I may show them on Facebook Live,” he said. “The public will have the opportunity to review the committee’s work halfway through the process at an open house and when it’s brought before the City Council at the end of the project. This will most likely be July or August.”
One voice from Willcox wine country who spoke to the importance of the Steering Committee was member Rod Keeling, co-founder and co-owner of Keeling-Schaefer Vineyards with his wife, Jan Schaefer. Keeling-Schaefer has had a tasting room on Railroad Avenue for 11 years in addition to their vineyards in Pearce.
“I was asked to join,” Keeling said. “I didn’t necessarily volunteer. I own a building in downtown Willcox that we purchased and renovated in 2009. In 1917 it was Willcox Bank and Trust.
“It was a first generation building. One reason I’m interested is because I have a stake. We don’t live in Willcox, we live out in the country out by the vineyards, but Willcox has been our home, since we moved out here from Tempe.”
Prior to moving to Willcox, Keeling worked as a state coordinator in Tempe.
“Willcox became a main street town in 1985,” he said. “I was the state coordinator in 1988 and Willcox was one of the first cities that I visited. So I’m quite familiar with Willcox.
“It’s long overdue. I’m glad that the city is taking over and creating a master plan. I’m happy to be part of the committee that’s going to help. Help build a consensus of the community, so that you can get done what you need to get done.
“I expect that we will make decisions on little things. Safety related. How we can improve the streets. Stuff that’s more pedestrian.
“How do we create a safe and more walkable environment for people? We need those people to believe that the plan is valid and that it will lead to quality of life. Ultimately the plan is an articulation of the consensus of the community.”
Additionally, Keeling spoke to another concern Willcox Wine Country has brought up to the Herald/Review in the past, how to preserve the structural design of the old buildings on Railroad Avenue when the building materials such as adobe are no longer being sold or worked on a regular basis.
“All of this technical information for the rehabilitation and revitalization of Willcox, adobe is readily available on the internet now,” Keeling said. “It’s great. My building is called Chiricahua brick.
“The national park service has a guide. You can actually go on the internet. They actually have a specific brief on how to restore Chiricahua. That’s true of adobe, too.
“There’s a brief, too. We’re gonna want to gather up this information, so that if they own an old building they don’t have to hire a contractor. Or they can educate a contractor. Part of this plan is to create more knowledge in the community.”
One of Keeling’s longtime neighboring businesses on Railroad Avenue is Willcox Theater and Arts Inc. which now owns three adjacent buildings with plans to expand in the future.
Gayle Berry, president of Willcox Theater and Arts, spoke to why she got involved with the Steering Committee and what her hopes are for the future of the downtown area.
“Willcox Theater and Arts is a big part of downtown Willcox and I look forward to helping plan for improvements that will benefit all residents,” Berry said.
Willcox Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture President Mary Peterson is also a member of the Steering Committee.
“Seeing our downtown area continue to develop as the heart of our community is important to me as a resident, as a business owner, and as a chamber member,” Peterson said. “Being thoughtful about the downtown development for both locals and for visitors is a project that I am excited to be a part of! As an owner of a downtown business, I know firsthand the traffic that our downtown gets from visitors. I would love to see it be an expression of all that is good about Willcox for our locals too.”
Peterson was echoed by a newer business owner in the downtown area, Dana Suorsa, co-owner of Source of Coffee.
“About three years ago I started doing real estate in Willcox and it all looked like it was going up,” Suorsa said. “I felt like it was such a good city that had potential and opportunity for growth. A lot of the real estate that I did in previous years was in San Tan Valley. It was all old and boring for me.
“Working on all these Craftsman old homes kind of sparked my interest. That’s really where the coffee shop came in. It was really a passion project for me. Once people started coming in it was really pleasing.”
Suorsa has flipped homes for the past 20 years. He has “fixed up mostly residential (businesses)” in the Willcox area.
“I really feel like the downtown area has so much potential,” he said. “I’ve already seen other businesses come in. The response of people coming in and moving here has also been positive. I feel like we can give more to people coming and visiting as well as the locals.
“The downtown area is what really brought me to Willcox. I felt like I was in downtown South Pasadena.”
Suorsa was born and raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra as well as South Pasadena.