The Truth about Wickenburg

A few facts, from a long-time resident.

We’ve lived in Wickenburg for about eight years now. Sadly, neither of us like the way things are going in town.

When we came to Wickenburg, it had small town charm and lots of open spaces. Since then, the developers (and their good buddies or relatives, the Realtors) have taken over. They’ve reshaped the desert so there are flat spots where there were once hills and they’ve planted houses on them. They’re kind of tricky the way they do this. They cut the land into lots, then build on every other lot. Folks buy the houses because they see so much space between them. Then the developer fills in the gaps and gets other people who like close living to buy those homes.

We have 2-1/2 acres in a very hilly area, with a wash flowing right through our property. That’s good because it keeps our neighbors far away — which we like. It’s not that we don’t like people. It’s just that we don’t like the idea of people looking into our windows from theirs. Now they’re all far enough away that we really don’t need to close the curtains for privacy. I like that. I like lying in bed at night and looking out at the stars.

But the rest of the town is being sold off at an alarming rate. One developer, who I took for a helicopter ride so he could get aerial photos, commented to his friends on how he was hoping to buy the land a church and pastor’s house is on so they could bulldoze it down and build some more condos. I was shocked. The church can’t be older than five years. And where will the parishioners go? I’m not a religious person, but I do have feelings for churchgoing people. Sadly, the developers don’t.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the town’s infrastructure would grow with the development. But it doesn’t. The downtown area is dying, slowly but surely, with much of its space taken up with private “Not a Retail Outlet” offices and vacant storefronts. Every strip mall has at least one empty space, if not more. One block downtown had about 50% of its space empty. I spoke to a property manager about renting one of the storefronts with the idea of setting up a cooperative art gallery, a place for local artists to sell their work. I told her I was concerned about having so many empty storefronts nearby — the area would never attract browsers. She assured me that she was talking to others about renting the other empty storefronts. When I asked her what kind of businesses might be going in, she told me a title company would be moving next door. A title company? There was already a mortgage company in that block. And more offices across the street. Why would I want the only retail business on the whole block? I decided to save my efforts — and my money — for a town with more potential.

Wickenburg’s job situation is equally dismal. There are a few good paying jobs with Remuda Ranch, the Meadows, and the Town of Wickenburg. But most of the town’s other businesses offer low-paying, minimum wage (or slightly higher) part time jobs with few or no benefits. The good jobs aren’t easy to get, either. A friend of mine interviewed for a wrangler position at Remuda Ranch a few years ago. She came away from the interview with a bad taste in her mouth. “I wasn’t Christian enough,” she told me. I guess 20 years of experience wasn’t enough for them if the applicant couldn’t meet the unspoken (and unadvertised) religious requirement.

The new business survival rate in Wickenburg is pitifully low. I think that problem is threefold:

(1) Many businesses are undercapitalized when they begin, so they’re doomed to failure. Common business sense says you need enough capital to pay for business expenses for a whole year before you start your business. Too many people depend on revenue that just doesn’t cut it. That’s why that Property Manager’s client prefers to rent to offices; they’re not depending on retail revenue for survival.

(2) Some businesses offer goods and services that there just isn’t a demand for in Wickenburg. The skateboard shop on Valentine Street is a good example. It was a great shop with lots of good merchandise professionally displayed. But let’s face it: Retirees don’t skateboard. And there weren’t enough skateboarders in town to support the business. Another example was the clothing shop that opened in the relatively new strip mall on the east side of the bridge. I never got a chance to get in there — they were open for less than a year — but I was told that their merchandise was expensive. That just won’t fly in a town where the fixed income retirees and minimum wage workers would prefer to shop in Alco or Wal-Mart.

(3) The town and Chamber of Commerce has no clue (or desire) to help local businesses survive. The town seems more interested in increasing town revenues through property taxes than sales taxes raised by thriving businesses. The town fathers have no qualms about allowing chain restaurants to open next door to existing locally-owned and operated restaurants selling the same type of food. (How many pizza places does Wickenburg need, anyway?) Lately, the only new businesses to come to Wickenburg and last more than a few months are the two “dollar stores” and two check cashing/payday advance places. These are the kinds of businesses that appeal to the lowest income tier or, worse yet, the fringe element responsible for the town’s drug problems and crime. The few events sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce benefit only a handful of businesses — the motels and restaurants on their favorites lists. Many of these events are poorly publicized and have disappointing attendance anyway. Worse yet, they’re the same old events, year after year, without any new twists. Ho hum.

So people might ask who’s buying all these houses if the town has these economic problems. I ask it all the time. But the answer is clear: retirees.

Wickenburg regularly makes a list of top places to retire. So the folks from the midwest flock to Wickenburg and buy homes. Some of them live there only half the year, which, in turn, further deteriorates the town’s economy by making it impossible for some businesses to survive in the summer. Others live here year-round, but do most of their shopping down in Surprise, at Wal-Mart. That’s also where they fill their cars with gas and visit their doctors. Every once in a while, they clamor that they want a Wal-Mart in Wickenburg. I guess it really doesn’t matter to them if Wickenburg’s remaining small town charm is destroyed by a big box store, as long as it makes cheap shopping more convenient for them. After all, it might increase the choices of minimum wage jobs: clerk in housewares, clerk in electronics, clerk in ladies clothing, etc. It certainly won’t increase the number of employers — if a Wal-Mart comes to Wickenburg, just about every other retail business will be forced out of business.

I wish I didn’t have to report these sad truths about Wickenburg. I wish I could lie or paint a rosy picture of town, the way the Chamber of Commerce and newspaper do. But I’m not a liar. And my rose-colored glasses just don’t tint the picture enough to report it any other way.

3 thoughts on “The Truth about Wickenburg

  1. wow… thanks for the info. i’d been to wickenburg about five years ago and thought it had a neat little downtown. my wife and i are both looking to relocate to AZ in the next few years and had considered wickenburg, but my research lately though doesn’t show what i’d hoped. we live in an artist co-op on the east coast and would like an old converted mill space or something like that, but all i’m finding is 5 acre plots of ‘horse land.’ sounds like sprawl and ugly development to me. any tips on wickenburg, or other towns would be most appreciated.

    matthew

  2. Sadly, the downtown has faded somewhat over the past ten years. When I first came to town in 1996, N. Tegner was lined with shops, including a gallery, multiple gift shops, and a really nice sandwich shop. Visitors walked the streets, browsing and (hopefully) spending money. Since then, much of the space has been taken over by Remuda Ranch as office space and only one block of shops survives. Other downtown space has been priced in such a way that only businesses can afford them — businesses such as realtors, title companies, and mortgage companies. The town recently instituted a BB&B tax on restaurants, bars, and hotels to raise money to beautify the downtown area, but that’s got a lot of business owners (and residents) angry because it’s a big tax and it benefits so few businesses.

    While I’m sure most small towns have similar problems, what’s sad about Wickenburg is that the Mayor and council are all for residential construction and keep rezoning to allow more and more houses per acre. What was once charming about Wickenburg — lots of space between homes, horse properties, wide open areas, small, friendly population — is fading fast as developers try to squeeze as many homes as possible onto the land. You might not like horse property, but it was once a defining feature of the town and it attracted lots of horse owners. Lots of the horse owners I know have moved away or at least out of town limits to get the space and riding trails they need.

    As an artist, you might consider Yarnell (25 miles north of Wickenburg), Prescott, or Jerome. Yarnell and Jerome have large artist populations. Jerome is a tourist destination, especially on weekends, and has lots of galleries. Prescott is a small city and has an artist co-op (or perhaps two of them) right downtown. Prescott’s Chamber of Commerce also sponsors monthly art fairs in the square that attract visitors from all over the state.

    I’m not saying that you shouldn’t come to Wickenburg, though. I still have hope for it. There’s an election next week that may change the direction the town is moving in. More careful development, preservation of what makes the town different, and perhaps even a real plan for economic development. I have my fingers crossed and will be voting for a change.

What do you think?