Recreation and the War Against Stagnancy

When I decided to run for my local town council, I never once considered that I was taking on the moniker of Politician. To my way of thinking, I wasn’t a politician because I had no ulterior motive. I wasn’t the front man for a large nameless organization lurking in the proverbial shadows. I wasn’t running to represent the high-minded ideologies of a political party. I was running because I wanted to be a part of making my town better.

Not that I thought my town was bad. It wasn’t. I just believed there were things that could be done to improve it. In fact, some of those things were already starting to take shape as Thatcher had just completed a splash pad park that was proving quite popular with not only Thatcher residents, but also residents from neighboring communities that stretched from Fort Thomas to Duncan and Morenci.

But to my idealistic mind, I was running because I believed a new splash pad park should be just the beginning. I wanted to ensure that in no way would a small park that provides a decent respite from the summer sun for small kids be the culmination of our focus on recreation and amenities that the Town of Thatcher could provide to its citizens. I believed—and still believe—that we should think bigger.

Over the last six years, others with views similar to mine have joined the Thatcher Town Council and as a result, a new soccer field/amphitheater complex is taking shape at the intersection of 8th Street and Reay Lane. When fully completed, this new complex will have the potential to be a major draw not only for residents of Thatcher and neighboring communities, but also for much of Southeastern Arizona and beyond.

Now, I understand that parks aren’t everything. I realize that they generate no revenue. I realize that they require significant funds to be spent annually for their upkeep. But on the other hand, I also understand what parks say about communities in which they are found. I understand what a small greenbelt or a full-size soccer complex can say to the family of a young professional looking to relocate or a recently retired couple looking for a winter home. I understand that a well-kept park system speaks to a community’s pride in itself. And I understand that once a community’s pride in itself is stoked, more often than not, greater things are on the horizon.

As evidence of this, I point to some of the changes we’ve seen in Thatcher over the last three years. Red Lamp Mobile Home Park has been cleared out to make room for revenue generating businesses along our main commercial thoroughfare. A proud bronze eagle sits atop a beautifully decorated monument in the middle of a totally revamped Church Street—a street that now boasts pavement that stretches from curb to curb and provides for parking and a bike lane on either side of the street. Striking new welcome signs framed by newly planted trees greet visitors on either side of town, informing them of their arrival in Thatcher.   

To me, all of this is positive change. It is evidence of a growing community.

Now I understand that some may question whether growth in our community is actually a positive thing. I think that’s a fair question. Those of us living in rural America generally do so because we enjoy the many benefits that come from a slower pace of life. But my answer to that would be that no community truly stays the same. A town’s identity is always somewhat fluid, and often if you are not growing, you are stagnating. And I would further argue that stagnation is the first step toward a town’s eventual demise.

Which brings me to the subject of a community recreation center. Currently the Town of Thatcher—in partnership with the Town of Pima, Graham County and Eastern Arizona College—has been investigating the possibility of building a recreation center that would house: athletic courts that could be used for basketball, volleyball, pickleball, and more; an indoor pool complex that could possibly include a warm water leisure pool, a cool water lap pool and a hot water wellness pool as well as a water recreation area for families; possible indoor racquetball courts; an indoor walking/jogging track; an Aerobic/High Fitness studio; and an ADA compliant wellness area that could possibly replace the current EAC Wellness Center.

The reason for exploring these possibilities is simple: each of these amenities are vital to the growth and sustainability of the Town of Thatcher as well as every community in the Gila Valley. In order to continue providing volleyball and basketball leagues for both youth and adults, Thatcher desperately needs more court space. Barring a major renovation, or complete replacement, the pool at EAC has a very few short years left. And should it go, Thatcher swim team, aquatic classes at EAC, seasonal lap swimming at the college, and a public pool facility in Thatcher all go with it. Additionally, in a world where year-round swimming is developing into a near-required amenity for both young professional families and mobile retirees alike, it is becoming more apparent each day that no such aquatic facility exists in the Gila Valley.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit and tour recreation centers like the one we hope to build in Thatcher. Each facility visited was a beautiful centerpiece for its community. And more importantly, each facility I visited was full. Full of individuals playing pickleball; full of young families enjoying a morning swim; full of high school volleyball players taking part in a summer camp; full of children receiving swimming lesson; in short, full of people who are busy living in a vibrant, thriving community.

Additionally, in each facility I and my fellow team members visited, we discovered the same two truths. The communities we were in are similar in size to the population base of the Gila Valley. And secondly, each of those communities are experiencing positive economic growth. I believe Thatcher, AZ is a special place. I believe the entire Gila Valley is special. But I also recognize that our valley is at a crossroad. And it is the same crossroad that faces every rural community in America: Grow or Stagnate. I believe working together as a community to build a recreation center that has the potential to meet so many needs for our citizens, as well as provide economic stimulus for our area, is one essential key to establishing the Gila Valley’s position on the road that leads to growth and continued prosperity. I invite all those in my community who agree, to take the opportunity in coming months to get involved in this process and help transform this desired possibility into a reality.