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Growing The Grand Canyon: Tiny Tusayan Wants To Expand

Tusayan
Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce and Visitors' Bureau
A mile before you reach the entrance to the South Rim you pass Tusayan — two blocks of restaurants, hotels, a gas station, an IMAX theater and not much else.

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Growing The Grand Canyon: Tiny Tusayan Wants To Expand

Growing The Grand Canyon: Tiny Tusayan Wants To Expand

Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce and Visitors' Bureau

A mile before you reach the entrance to the South Rim you pass Tusayan — two blocks of restaurants, hotels, a gas station, an IMAX theater and not much else.

The tiny Arizona town of Tusayan wants to grow. Many in the gateway community to the Grand Canyon want hotels and tourist attractions to better capitalize on the five million people that visit the park each year.  They also want basic things — more housing, neighborhoods, a grocery store and a library.

Westward expansion brought with it ambitious pioneers who took one look at the Grand Canyon and saw dollar signs. Historians say after the railroad was built in 1901, the south rim turned into a carnival of opportunists selling trinkets, tinctures and tolls. Prospectors with mine claims thwarted initial attempts to protect the land.

Finally in 1919 the federal government made it a national park.

The Grand Canyon Trust’s Roger Clark said pressures to exploit the canyon haven’t gone away.

“And so the challenges that we’re facing today are challenges that have happened in the past,” Clark said. “They’re occurring in the present and they’re going to happen into the future. There’s a lot of ways to make money there. Some of the ways add to the enduring value of the park and others take away.”

Whether a proposed new development project adds value or not is the question facing the town of Tusayan and managers of the neighboring national forest.

Driving to the south rim of the Grand Canyon feels a bit like you’re traveling to the moon — high desert chaparral for miles. There’s not much in terms of civilization until about a mile before the park entrance, you reach Tusayan — two blocks of restaurants, hotels, a gas station, an IMAX theater and not much else.

But that may soon change. The Stilo Group, an Italian developer, has purchased 300 acres of national forest next door to the little town. They want to vastly expand what Tusayan has to offer. First on the list: build housing for current and future residents.

Tusayan Mayor Greg Bryan said the town desperately needs an incentive for hotel and restaurant workers to make homes in Tusayan. Many commute.

“This community is a community of employees not a community of residents,” Bryan said. “Out of 560 people there are seven private homes and all those are landowners. So all the rest of us live in company housing. If you lose your job, you lose your house.”

In addition to condos and single family homes, Stilo has proposed a cultural center, an Indian marketplace, a dude ranch, a luxury resort and spa. Stilo spokesman Andy Jacobs said the developer has already invested two decades and millions of dollars into the project.

Laurel Morales

Grand Canyon Superintendent Dave Uberuaga says Tusayan doesn't have the staff and infrastructure to deal with more park visitors.

“It has been a long road to get to the point where we’re at but they are willing to see it through because they believe in this project,” Jacobs said.

But there’s a problem. Water is in very short supply on the edge of the Grand Canyon.

There are two options to bring water to the project — pipe water from the Colorado River, a river that is already promised to too many others with water rights. A second option would be to drill wells. That’s what has park superintendent Dave Uberuaga worried.

“Why are we considering further development when to this day we’re still hauling water into the town of Tusayan for the existing buildings?” Uberuaga said.

The town’s wells have already been depleted. And that in turn has had an impact on park water supplies.

Park visitors and the 2,000 park employees rely on a decades-old, broken-down pipeline that pumps water from a canyon spring several miles below. As the second-most-visited national park in the country, Uberuaga is also concerned about how they’d handle more people.

“Let’s look at managed growth,” Uberuaga said. “Let’s look at take it one step at a time. Let’s don’t give anyone the full build out opportunity over 20 years right out of the gate. You don’t have the staff you don’t have the capability to manage that.”

Still, Tusayan Mayor Greg Bryan dreams big. He’d like to see the town quadrupling in size over the next two decades. But he knows that he and the developer need to tread carefully.  

“We would not be here without Grand Canyon National Park,” Bryan said. “There’d be no reason to have a town here so we recognize that. We’re not going to do something that’s going to significantly damage and impair the resource that’s there for people to come from all over the world to enjoy.”

The Tusayan town council has approved the project, but before any new construction proceeds the developer has to get the project through the National Forest Service’s rigorous environmental review process. And that could take years.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been modified to reflect the environmental review process is conducted by the National Forest Service. 

Updated 8/2/2014 at 11:48 p.m.

Laurel Morales was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2011 to 2020.