Duncan residents do 75 percent of their shopping in Safford and is losing most of its high school seniors upon graduation, but the town has a lot of potential. That was the conclusion drawn by the non-profit organization Local First Arizona following a recent study.

A few months back, the Town of Duncan received funds under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that could only be used for economic development purposes. The town council hired Local First Arizona to conduct a study to look at residents’ shopping habits and to create a new website and a video promoting the town.

The results of the study were released to council members last week and posted on the town’s website.

Top wants

Acccording to the survey, residents said they shop in Safford and would love to have their own grocery store, bank and pharmacy. Every participant noted they have to buy their furniture, electronics and appliances outside Duncan.

Lexie Krechel, the author of the report, however, noted that “Duncan is a great location for someone looking for a unique business opportunity.

Most of the storefronts in the downtown district require renovation, creating an opportunity to truly create your own space. There are also limited options for many essential items within Duncan, so there is a fairly open market for almost any type of new business that could potentially thrive in this community.”

Krechel also gave the following advice: “Town leadership should be focused on increasing available real estate to attract new people.

We heard over and over that there are not enough people for businesses to start up or grow, and that there is no available real estate for potential new residents.”

She further noted Duncan students, upon graduation, often have to leave because of the lack of affordable housing.

Town council member Deborah Mendelsohn said she wasn’t surprised by the results of the study. Some time ago, thanks to grant funding, the town brought in consultants, held public meetings and formed committees to discuss the needs and wants of the community. For a variety of reasons, the effort stalled.

Nowadays, however, Mendelsohn said, “we have the people we need on the town council to get some things done and I believe we have the support of the public.”

The town council, in fact, has already started to hold work sessions to look over the general plan and start making decisions, Mendelsohn and fellow council member Alex Blake said.

Top needs

Housing and economic development are at the top of the priority list, Blake and Mendelsohn agreed.

Duncan doesn’t have housing for anyone to relocate to and yet now is when people are really looking to move, Blake said.

“Especially since COVID, I’ve talked to friends and relatives and and people who are actually living in the larger metro areas that have found ways to work remotely and who are looking for opportunities to move to extremely rural areas, not just suburban or a smaller micropolitan areas,” Blake said. “They’re looking for more of a rural lifestyle where they are more isolated.”

Blake and Mendelsohn said the town owns a great deal of land and a few buildings that could be developed for housing and retail opportunities. While some of it is in a flood plain and was gifted to the town following floods, that shouldn’t deter them, they said.

“We definitely have properties that we could do something spectacular with if there were the will and the imagination,” Mendelsohn said. “What I’m talking about specifically are properties up on the mesa overlooking the town.”

The area around the former town airport also has spectacular views, the Parks Canyon area has attractive hillside lots and there is land along 4th Avenue below the cemetery and on both sides of the river, Mendelsohn said.

“So we have properties that are, I think, quite desirable in terms of home sites. And then we also have properties we own that should be businesses,” she said, citing as one example the property on the Old West Highway that used to be called the Outpost.

Duncan is probably less flood-prone than it used to be anyway, she said.

“I’ve talked with several experts from Arizona and New Mexico, hydrologists who understand the trends in climate impacts, and generally they agree that the risk of catastrophic flooding here is lowered due to the reduced snowpack in the headwaters of the Gila,” Mendelsohn said “No one can guarantee that, of course. But the chances of a 100-year flood now, which is what FEMA bases their determinations on, are probably getting lower by the year. So I won’t hesitate to develop properties in the flood zone. People have to have money to buy properties with cash. And they have to be risk-tolerant personality types.”

Blake pointed out communities that have been devastated by hurricanes have found ways to rebuild in hard hit areas.

“People have had this idea that ‘Oh well, the only thing you can put in a flood plain is an RV park’ and I don’t necessarily believe that after visiting and living in the South,” Blake said.”The solution there was to raise everything one story.

So your house is either built on 8-10 feet stilts. The bottom story, you can finish it if you’d like, but it just has to be essentially sacrificial. So all of your power, all of your appliances, everything needs to be on the second floor and above.”

What’s next

In the coming weeks and months, Blake said the council will continue to meet, go over the general plan and determine what properties need to be sold or developed. They’ll also determine their other priorities, including facility upgrades, roads and water systems.

From his perspective, each community within Greenlee County has been “doing their own thing” without a regional focus and that needs to change. Conversations need to be had involving county and town officials, the school districts and other stakeholders, he said.

“No one’s ever going to come to a consensus. I mean, I’m not unrealistic there, but at least bringing everyone to the table and having, you know, having a discussion about OK. What do you see in the next five years?

What do you see in the next 10 years? What is your focus? What are your goals?” Blake said. “There could be some kind of consensus as to what needs to be done to keep the small town feel and to not just grow, but grow smartly and retain those (residents) that we already have.”

Mendelsohn said the completion of the study and other recent events are positive steps forward and she hopes the momentum will continue.

“Now, Duncan has a competent website which we never had before. We posted all of our records that are supposed to be posted online, and we keep in touch with the public through the website and through Facebook, which we never did before,” she said.

The Local First study was funded by $7,500 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act money and $2,500 from Freeport-McMoRan.

According to their website, the Local First Arizona Foundation is an 11-year-old statewide organization focused on building a “self-reliant economy for communities of all sizes.”

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