The Arizona Republic
By MAX JARMAN
The Arizona Republic
For 50 years or more, San Manuel was taken care of by the owners of the nearby copper mine who provided jobs, municipal services, recreation, even homes for the workers.
With the mine closed, residents are fending for themselves and trying to develop a future for this high-desert town of 4,500, about 32 miles north of Tucson.
The possibilities include new life as a retirement center or as a bedroom community for Tucson.
“We’re a town in transition,” said Janice Rapp, director of the Tri-Community Chamber of Commerce, which serves the Pinal County communities of San Manuel, Oracle and Mammoth.
Progress has been slow, partly because of what Rapp and others described as a seeming reluctance on the part of residents to lead the community and make a commitment to its future.
“There don’t seem to be a lot of people who are willing to participate,” said Charles Harry Allen, the manager of Arizona Water Co.’s office in San Manuel.
Like many of San Manuel’s longtime residents, Rapp and her family came to town seeking a better life.
In New York City, her husband, now dead, was a data processor who had high blood pressure.
“It gave him another 10 years,” she said of the move.
Her husband and son found work at the mine, and for years life was good.
That changed in 1999 when the mine closed.
“My son lost his job, and I lost my son,” Rapp said.
He moved back East to find work.
Rapp said she no longer is bitter about the closure, but others in San Manuel are.
Aftermath of closure
“It was wrong to close the mine,” said L.D. Pederson, a retired miner who moved to San Manuel in 1956, shortly after Magma Copper Co. opened the mine and built the community to house workers. “I don’t even like to think about it.”
Magma sold the mine in 1997 to Australia’s BHP Billiton, which closed it two years later when copper prices slumped.
“It was a business decision,” said Jeff Parker, BHP’s head of community relations in San Manuel.
While as many as one-third of San Manuel’s residents moved away after the closure, many remained, often commuting to jobs in Tucson and Florence.
Adele Early, who came to San Manuel in 1953 to help her brother run the community’s department store, stayed when the store closed, and her brother moved to Phoenix.
“I have a home here,” Early said.
She said she hopes new industry will come in.
BHP has stayed to clean up the mine site and help residents develop a new economic base to sustain the community.
“It’s our legacy,” Parker said. “We don’t want the town to be worse off after we leave.”
In 2005, BHP helped Republic Plastics Ltd. of McQueeney, Texas, to set up on reclaimed mining land a factory to make Styrofoam plates and bowls. The plant employs about 130 people.
“It’s really helped,” said Amanda Paton, a San Manuel resident who is office manager at Republic Plastics.
Since the mine closed, BHP has spent $120 million to eradicate the once-enormous copper mining and smelting operation from the landscape to satisfy state and federal environmental rules and position the town for a new beginning.
The cleanup is almost complete, and BHP is eager to see the community stand on its own.
Its predecessor, Magma Copper, earlier sold the 1,200 trim, midcentury homes it had rented to miners for as little as $50 a month.
BHP provided considerable financial support to schools, such as funding after-school programs, but it is cutting back on that help, said Ron Rickel, superintendent of Mammoth-San Manuel Unified School District.
Since 1999, the district’s enrollment has dropped 30 percent, to 1,200 students, and continues to fall.
The decline has meant closure of a junior high school and consolidation of two elementary schools under one principal, officials said.
“It makes it hard to continue to offer a variety of classes,” Rickel said. “We need some kind of development to bring in new families and students.”
Parker said BHP would continue to provide money to schools but can’t to do so indefinitely.
The company also sold the community’s golf course and sewer treatment facility.
BHP will remain a part of San Manuel.
The company owns 20,000 acres surrounding the town, which many people believe may be the key to the community’s future.
Last year, BHP announced a joint venture with Los Angeles developer Lowe Enterprises to build a luxury golf resort and as many as 15,000 houses in San Manuel.
The plans were put on hold when Lowe backed out because of the softening national real estate market, but BHP is doing the project on its own.
Because of the low land costs and proximity to Tucson, Parker believes San Manuel is an ideally suited as a bedroom and retirement community.
“The future hinges on the bulk acreage BHP has,” said Larry Henley, a businessman from Scottsdale who plans to build houses on 300 acres that surround the San Manuel Golf Club he bought last year.
Retirees, who have been moving to San Manuel since the mine closed, also are part of the town’s future.
Retired people now make up an estimated one-third to one-half of the population in San Manuel, according to Amy Whatton, a real estate agent who has lived in the community since 1972.
Retirees are drawn by the mild winters and relatively inexpensive housing.
Indeed, barber Keith Rea said he has noticed that many retirees who come as “snowbirds” to spend the winter eventually become permanent residents.
In 1999, a two-bedroom, two-bath house built by Sun City developer Del Webb sold for $35,000.
While the price has climbed to about $85,000, Whatton noted that the price remains affordable.
Genevieve Schwandt and her husband retired to San Manuel in 2004 from Beaver Dam, Wis.
“It’s been a godsend,” Schwandt said. “We can live comfortably here and not worry about a thing.”
Many people see retirees, such as the Schwandts, as a key to San Manuel’s future.
“I think the town will grow as a retirement center,” said Andra Gonzalez, a former resident who remains concerned about San Manuel’s future.
While the retirees have helped stabilize the town, Rapp and others hope more industry will come in to provide jobs for families.
“I don’t want this to become an old senior-citizen community,” she said.
Besides attracting residents, light industry and real estate development, two of the economic prospects being explored for San Manuel’s future, could provide jobs for young people, keeping them from leaving town to find work.
Monique Marquez, 26, a native of San Manuel who works at Bonnie’s Cafe, said that most of the friends she grew up with and went to school with have moved away.
“There was nothing here for them,” she said.
Who will lead?
BHP has been working to help the community develop an economic plan, but Parker said he is frustrated by the lack of commitment.
He said his company has tried for seven years to gauge residents’ sentiments through meetings, workshops and planning sessions.
He said, “I still don’t know” what they want.
Because San Manuel is unincorporated, decisions affecting the community are made by Pinal County.
A move to incorporate a few years ago never got off the ground.
“People were afraid their taxes would go up,” Whatton said.
Residents also rejected BHP’s offer to give them the town’s sewer treatment facility.
“It’s their community. You’d think they would want to have a say in it,” said Allen, who has lived in San Manuel for eight years.
San Manuel’s lack of local initiative is frustrating to Pinal County officials, too.
“They need to have some local control,” said Lionel Ruiz, the Pinal County supervisor whose district encompasses San Manuel. “But if I tell them to incorporate, they think the county is trying to get rid of them. If I tell them not to incorporate, they think the county is trying to control them.”
Whatton believes the years of being provided for by the mine owners may have made residents complacent.
“The company took care of the utilities, washed the windows and cut the grass,” she said.
Rapp believes the community also has been in denial about the permanency of the mine’s closure.
“Until the stacks came down, people thought the mine would eventually reopen,” she said.
The stacks, a pair of 500-foot chimneys that were blown up by BHP in January, were the last visible remnant of San Manuel’s mining-town past.
Although soaring copper prices have led to the reopening of a number of previously closed mines, it’s too late for San Manuel.
“All the infrastructure’s been hauled away, and the tunnels are sealed up and flooded,” Parker said.
Ex-miner Charles Looney said, “Generation after generation worked here, and now all that’s ended.”
HISTORY OF SAN MANUEL
• 1880: Underground mining of gold, silver, zinc, lead, vanadium and molybdenum begins in the Tiger Mines area near San Manuel.
• 1935: Tiger Mines bought by St. Anthony Mining Co., which begins production of lead and zinc.
• 1942: War Production Board looks for copper in the area to meet wartime needs.
• 1944: Magma Copper Co. consolidates claims around San Manuel and discovers a major copper deposit.
• 1948: Magma begins developing the San Manuel Mine and lays plans for a community to support several thousand miners.
• 1956: Production begins at San Manuel, and miners move into homes built by Phoenix contractor Del Webb.
• 1970: Magma invests $100 million to expand production at San Manuel and builds houses to accommodate more workers.
• 1986: Magma sells San Manuel’s 1,200 houses to occupants and investors.
• 1988: World’s largest copper smelter opens at San Manuel.
• 1997: Magma Copper is sold to Australia’s BHP Billiton Ltd., for $2.4 billion.
• 1998: BHP Invests hundreds of millions upgrading the mine, mill and smelter at San Manuel.
• 1999: Mining suspended at San Manuel, and 3,300 miners eventually laid off.
• 2002: BHP decides to close the San Manuel mine permanently.
• 2005: Plans announced by BHP for master-planned housing development of up to 15,000 houses.
• 2006: BHP completes eradicating most traces of mining in San Manuel to satisfy state and federal regulators. Master-planned community is put on hold because of soft market.
- The Arizona Republic
SAN MANUEL FACTS
• Location: 150 miles southeast of Phoenix in Pinal County
• Population: About 4,500
• Elevation: 3,500 feet
• Founded: 1952
• Assessed valuation: $6.32 million