Take Route 86 west from Tucson for 124 miles and you’ll come to a fork in the road. Turn left for Rocky Point, Mexico. Turn right for Ajo, Arizona.
For many years, it didn’t occur to very many travelers from Tucson to turn right. That’s not the case anymore and it’s not just because of the new, full-service coffee shop, Harris & Smith, that Marty Harris and Taylor Smith opened in the historic Ajo Plaza last summer.
Ajo has been featured in high profile publications across the country—USA Today and The Atlantic to name two—because the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) is a national model for rural community revitalization.
More than a decade ago, ISDA proposed a new arts-and-culture-driven economic development strategy that caught the imagination of residents and funders alike.
How NPLF Helped
In addition to turning a school into a thriving home for artists and creating a beautiful inn and conference center, ISDA purchased the Ajo Plaza and began the long process of preserving and renovating it. However, the Plaza, which is the main retail center and a gathering place for many community activities, struggled.
NPLF provided cash flow support that gave ISDA time to renegotiate the Plaza mortgage to reduce costs. Additionally, NPLF board member Roxanne Veliz, an attorney with Snell & Wilmer in Tucson, stepped up and donated her time to help ISDA with the real estate negotiations.
“All of us want Ajo Plaza to succeed, as it is such a cornerstone of our community,” says ISDA Executive Director Aaron Cooper. “Now the Plaza will be financially sustainable and we can move forward with other important projects that benefit Ajo.”
More about Harris & Smith
“Relocating our business to the Ajo Plaza has been an excellent choice. We have strong support from organizations such as ISDA and the Chamber of Commerce, organizations that are developing strong programs for business development, networking, and tourism,” said Taylor. “Since coming to Ajo, we have found a strong market for our products, a wonderful community, and nearly unlimited opportunity to expand, try new projects, and collaborate with other businesses.”
In addition to coffee, Harris and Smith sold 1,100 handmade, Ajo-produced items last year and shared the proceeds with their suppliers: local food producers, artists, and makers. They began with two vendors and now have 16.
Marty and Taylor have created five jobs, with employees ranging in age from 17 to 26. Three are female and one recently aged out of foster care. Two are currently enrolled in community college online and one is in the local EMT night school program.
“Their willingness to work and learn has been our single most motivating and rewarding experience in Ajo,” says Taylor, who together with Marty, host a weekly business peer mentoring and accountability group open to all at the coffee shop.
More about Ajo, Arizona
Ajo is a former copper mining town established by John and Isabella Greenway who, inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, hired architects to design their company town.
Ajo’s copper mine closed in the mid-1980s at the end of a strike that divided families. Having lost their jobs and homes, many mining families left town. Today, Ajo has year-round residents and an influx of seasonal residents.
The town is surrounded by 3.2 million acres of undeveloped Sonoran Desert and is the gateway to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the seacoast in Mexico 90 miles south. Just to the east is the Tohono O’odham Nation, the second largest Indian Nation in the United States.