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Tucson Weekly Building A Better Mouse Trap

Does Disney Have Big Plans For The Desert?

By Lisa Lopfor

APRIL 5, 1999:  Editor's note: As this issue of the Tucson Weekly was to go to press, attorneys for the Disney Corporation threatened litigation if publication proceeded:

"The Disney Corporation asserts sole ownership of the documents said to be in possession of the Tucson Weekly," wrote attorney Robin Widdoes. "Quoting, summarizing, or in any way indicating the contents of these alleged documents (should they actually belong to Disney) could result in adverse publicity that could damage my client's ability to complete a project in which a substantial investment has already been made. Accordingly, if you do not cease and desist with your 'investigation,' Disney will pursue all options of grievence, including but not limited to a lawsuit to recover potential profits, which are expected to exceed several billion dollars."

The Weekly, which broke no laws in acquiring the information on which the following story is based, believes this attempt at prior censorship is unconstitutional, and therefore is proceeding with publication.

SPEND A FEW hours bouncing around the cab of his '74 Ford 3/4-ton pickup and you start to understand why Kokopelli County Supervisor Randy "Hoof" Bergman has won five consecutive elections. As he speeds along the county's dirt roads, kicking a cloud of dust in, spilling a lifetime of memories of people and places.

"That's the old Twain ranch," he mumbles around a well-chewed cigar. "I worked for him in my teenage years. Some of my fondest memories. Over there's the Swift spread. They're my wife's folks. We've been sweethearts since second grade--meant for each other, I guess."

You get the sense Bergman knows everyone in Kokopelli County, population 53,000. The county, located northwest of Pima County, covers more than 600 square miles of harsh Sonoran Desert that rises in one corner into Mount Warren, a spectacular pine-studded "sky island."

Bergman knows this stunning land and its people. He'll chew the fat with a dozen or more locals in the course of an afternoon. Nothing much seems to get said in these sessions of aimless jawboning, but somehow Bergman comes away knowing exactly what's on everybody's mind.

But ask him about Disney, and suddenly Bergman grows terse.

"Shazam! A rumor sure can fly," Bergman says. "You media types will believe just about anything, won't you?"

BERGMAN isn't the only one who clams up when asked about the Disney corporation. While they admit a deal's in the works, his colleagues on the Kokopelli County Board of Supervisors aren't commenting. State officials and real estate brokers are equally evasive.

Despite the stonewall, sketchy details of an extraordinary plan were leaked last month to the Tucson Weekly. The package, which appears to be a mix of correspondence, planning blueprints and official memos from Kokopelli County, the Arizona Land Department and the Disney Corporation, show the Kokopelli County Board of Supervisors is deep in negotiations with Disney to develop the most ambitious master-planned community in the history of the state, if not the world. Code-named AZCOT, the plan appears to be a 21st-century version of Disney's EPCOT (Experimental Community of Tomorrow) Center in Orlando, Florida. Under the proposal, Disney would acquire title to roughly 600 square miles in Kokopelli (see map, page 17). Kokopelli County supervisors would then relinquish control of the area to an "Entertainment Improvement District" (EID) controlled by a three-member board of directors that would be appointed by the Disney Corporation.

This EID would assume nearly all the duties of the Board of Supervisors. It would control the county's budget, tax rate, zoning decisions, law-enforcement duties, judicial system, welfare administration and indigent healthcare. (As one memo explains, "Many of these departments would benefit from a profit-minded approach. For too long, government programs like welfare have been treated like social services.") The supervisors, using a budget provided by the EID, would continue handling constituent complaints and retain the power to issue proclamations.

In return, Disney would build a $6 billion theme park covering 150 square miles. Twice the size of any previous Disney park, Disney AZ will include all of the corporate giant's signature attractions--the Matterhorn, Pirates of the Carribean, Main Street USA and the like--as well as accommodating many new and ambitious attractions, such as:

  • A simulated Colorado River adventure, featuring raft-like carts which travel on submerged rails through a 1/4-scale fiberglass replica of the Grand Canyon;

  • A cliff-dweller city featuring animatronic Anasazi grinding corn and weaving baskets;

  • The largest Old West attraction ever devised: Duckville, a frontier town so expansive that if it were real, it would be the seventh-largest city in Arizona, complete with covered-wagon monorail and a complex municipal stagecoach system.

In addition, the company will construct 250 golf courses and film, television and animation studios, as well as a robotics lab designed to develop service units for use in the park.

"If such a project were to be built--and of course we have no guarantees at this point--it would mean thousands of service-industry jobs for Arizonans!" said Al Spinnitt, a spokesman for Gov. Jane Dee Hull's administration.

Disney initially brushed off questions about the plan's authenticity. Questions were directed to Disney counsel Robin Widdoes, who laughed heartily when asked if the development plans were genuine. "Oh, our Imagineers dream stuff up all the time. That's their job. But very few projects get the green light. You'd be amazed at some of the proposals. It's like those war games the Pentagon is always playing."

But just as The Weekly was going to press, the Mickey Mouse corporation started whistling a different tune, and it wasn't a happy one. Widdoes demanded the documents be returned to Disney, in a letter claiming their "potential ownership."

The documents in question reveal the astonishing theme-park project is just the beginning of Disney's vision for Kokopelli County. Disney's development arm, working with a team of the company's famed Imagineers, has proposed constructing millions of homes built according to six design styles. These homes will be spread across environmentally engineered "townships."

"While the climate is excellent, our research shows that many potential future residents--particularly retirees from more temperate parts of the country--find the Sonoran Desert environment inhospitable," one report reads. "Simply put, people will be more comfortable in familiar surroundings."

Disney proposes to raze large tracts of the desert and create a variety of American regional environments throughout Kokopelli County. "With an aggressive desert relocation program followed by an accelerated eco-grafting operation, we believe it is possible to create lush Northwestern forests, Kansas prairies, lakeside communities, Louisiana bayous and a host of other living environments," the report states.

Each of these "regions" would include scaled-down "UrbanMocks™" of specific metropolitan areas surrounded by a ring of suburbs. "We have a unique opportunity to recreate the best elements of our country's greatest cities in an environment where the sun shines nearly every day," one memo boasts. "Imagine a Manhattan with the Empire State Building, Radio City Music Hall, a thriving theatre district and an outstanding collection of ethnic restaurants, but no wailing car alarms, no muggings, no ethnic population, no urban woes."

In a revolutionary marketing agreement with fast-food giant McDonald's, each UrbanMock™ is slated to feature a series of drive-thru restaurants iconically shaped for the leading landmark of its model city: Fenway Park for McBoston, the Statue of Liberty for McYork (a.k.a., the Big McApple), the Space Needle for McSeattle, and so on. (McAngeles was cut from the list when Anaheim-based Imagineers expressed doubts that L.A.'s "unique nature" could be recreated in the project.)

ASK HOOF BERGMAN about these plans, and you get a good laugh--but few details.

"Well, we're in talks with a developer and I really can't comment," Bergman says. "All I can say is that we're trying to create an opportunity for orderly, planned growth--a sophisticated residential and entertainment complex in a quality atmosphere. What you've got out here is some old farm and ranch land, along with a lot of rocks and cactus. Who's gonna miss that?"

Sandahl Crane sure will. Crane, staff attorney for the Center for Ecological Litigation, is horrified by the prospect. "You're talking about transforming a big chunk of the Sonoran Desert into forests, lakes, swamps and suburbs," she protests. "Golf courses are bad enough, but they want scaled-down Lake Michigans and Hudson Rivers!"

But water isn't a worry for Disney. Along with existing water rights, the developers suggest they could win Tucson's CAP allotment. "Tucsonans continue to reject CAP water," the report notes. "By assuming responsibility for the water, we can solve one of Tucson's problems--what to do with CAP water--while assuring our future needs. It's a win-win situation." The report also notes that Tucson's growth will probably slow once most high-paid jobs and affluent citizens relocate to AZCOT.

The water plan hardly pacifies Crane. "The environmental devastation would be unparalleled and the long-term results would be catastrophic. There are some natural wonders in Kokopelli County like Scattrail Canyon and Tumblebelly Creek, which are home to endangered species like the hucklebellied grouter and the Sonoran sandfly."

Crane promises her group will sue under the Endangered Species Act to stop the development from going forward. But Disney's legal arm has already anticipated that move. According to the documents, Disney has a plan to innoculate itself against a lawsuit under the ESA, even though it anticipates pushing several indigenous species toward extinction. "We can make this work to our benefit," a confidential legal document reads. "Federal environmental dollars are available to set aside habitat for impacted species. We believe we can enter into a pre-emptive Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan that will provide millions of dollars in matching federal funds and insulate us against costly future litigation." The plan envisions creating a 300-acre "Sonoran Wildlife Refuge" and resort complex for these endangered species. "In exchange for this generous set-aside, the Department of the Interior will match admission fees from eco-tourists with federal dollars."

But that's just the beginning of the subsidies the project's planners hope to draw. Virtually all of the land in question is currently owned by the state Land Department. Charged by the Arizona Constitution with the responsibility of selling land for its "highest and best use," with proceeds earmarked for public education, the Land Department generally sells state land for development, and often works with developers who eventually purchase the land. According to what appears to be an inter-office Land Department memo, Disney would instead take out an "option" on the land. It would be leased to Disney for nothing, which would relieve the corporation from ever paying property taxes. Homeowners and businesses in the development, however, would be charged a fee, called a "Property Tax Equivalency," which would be collected by Disney in exchange for its participation in the project.

According to the memo, "The land may never be developed without the financial investment of a developer like The Client. The long-range fiscal ripple will more than compensate for what initially might appear to be a less-than-equitable exchange."

Although Land Department spokesman Tom Knotelling admits the deal is currently in the planning stages, he refused to disclose details, claiming the arrangement was protected from public scrutiny by "government-client privilege."

The few privately held ranches and farms in the proposed area have been recently purchased by a what appears to be a number of "dummy" corporations, including MVI (Mouse Ventures Inc.), DPI (Duck Properties Inc.) and GPI (Goofy Development Inc.).

EVEN WITH THE low-cost land, the project's tab will still stretch to eight figures. To offset the cost, the development calls for an infusion of federal, state and local tax dollars, according to a memo written by Annie Metronik, an assistant Kokopelli County manager. Although Metronik didn't return phone calls from The Weekly, a 1998 article in the Buffeltown Herald-Prevaricator reported she was hired by the county one year ago, in a new position made possible by a grant from the Disney Corporation.

In her report, Metronik justified the use of tax dollars for economic development. "Although on the surface it seems as though the project will consume tax dollars earmarked for other areas in the state," Metronik wrote, "the 'multiplier effect' from the project over the next several decades clearly shows that this government investment will be paid off a million-fold in the centuries to come."

Among the proposed taxpayer contributions:

  • Roads will be built with funds diverted from school construction projects around the state.

  • A world-class monorail system will be built with state lottery funds that currently support public bus systems in Tucson and Phoenix.

  • NAFTA funds will be used to extend the monorail to the Mexican border. (Because the project is within 300 miles of the border, it's considered a "wage-free zone" under NAFTA.) The report forecasts bringing workers into the country to fill jobs in the development at the Mexican minimum wage until a "robotics-based service community" can be created.

  • Sewer lines will be built with federal funds. Planners hope to win dollars earmarked through NAFTA for environmental clean-ups. According to the documents, "This wise investment of funds will pay dividends in the 22nd century, when advances from this state-of-the-art technology can be retrofitted in border communities like Nogales."

  • Disney will acquire leases to harvest nearly all of the timber atop Mount Warren. The U.S. Department of the Interior will build roads criss-crossing the mountain, while Disney will receive all logging revenues.

  • Recreational fees from national forests, including Mount Lemmon and Sabino Canyon, will be diverted to Disney's proposed Bambi's Woods, a family-friendly, faux forest composed entirely of fire-retardant, non-injurious materials to be built atop Mount Warren following the timber harvest. The usual pine-needle base, which can often injure children with its sharp points, would be replaced with a deep layer of brightly colored foam balls.

  • According to several documents in The Weekly's possession, the entire project will be powered by a combination of solar and nuclear technology. "Federal grant monies available for solar power continue to grow," one Disney analyst observes. "Even though solar technology is inadequate for intensive urban entertainment development, these federal funds are increasingly available for properly structured corporate ventures."

Another document indicates Disney planners believe they can take advantage of a U.S. Department of Defense program aimed at increasing the safety of Russia's nuclear stockpile. "By operating in accordance with DOD's Project Cooldown," the memo states, "the sale and/or leaseback of former Soviet breeder reactors becomes an attractive and reasonable supplement to conventional solar power sources. The federal government will waive importation fees under the category Educational Materials and Displays."

The plan taps revenue sources heretofore unimagined, even calling for the sale of naming rights for streets in the development. "Previously, street names have been haphazardly chosen by developers," the report says. "However, we believe many corporations would find sponsorship to be an excellent marketing opportunity. The private investor will not be excluded: Individuals can participate by purchasing the privilege to have have their street named for themselves, their families, or in memory of a loved one." Estimated revenue: $120 million.

UP AT THE state Capitol, the halls are buzzing with stories about the project, but lawmakers decline to comment on the record (although several were quick to deny rumors which surfaced last week that they have been quietly forming private corporations to bid on various aspects of the secret Disney plans).

But take a look at House Bill 2899, which started out as a simple measure to name the state's new $700 million treasury building after former Gov. J. Fife Symington III. The bill was subsequently amended to include many provisions that would aid the fledgling development.

Among the provisions:

  • The bill would lay the groundwork for the creation of an Entertainment Improvement District.

  • This Entertainment Improvement District would be able to form a charter school district--one of Disney's key plans. As one leaked memo reads, "We believe by combining traditional educational tools with Disney's extensive stable of beloved characters, we can create the happiest classroom on earth."

  • By treating the anticipated amusement park attendance figures as a calculation of population density, the proposed legislation would secure a large percentage of the state's urban renewal and inner-city improvement funds.

  • The bill would allow the theme park's snack bars and soda stands to be partly underwritten by WIC, the Women, Infant and Children nutrition program. This will allow Disney to sell, for example, hamburgers for only $9.50, rather than the $10 unsubsidized price at the California and Florida parks.

HB 2899 is being pushed by powerful lobbyist Wesley Krooke, who downplays the legislation's effect. "It really just clarifies some holes in the law," says Krooke, who declined to tell The Weekly which of his many clients he was helping with the bill. But he recently added a group called "Arizonans For Theme Park Development" to his list of clients at the Secretary of State's Office.

Glenn Buttkiss, the director of Arizonans for Theme Park Development, says theme parks will help boost the state's economy.

"We're just a grass-roots group," says the 37-year-old Buttkiss, a former Disney executive who retired to Arizona six months ago. "We have thousands of members throughout the state who agree that theme parks are vital to maintaining the state's tourism edge."

Buttkiss scoffs at claims by astronomers on Mount Warren, who gripe that light pollution from the development would destroy their billion-dollar telescope array, in place for more than 30 years.

"What's more important," Buttkiss asks, "some distant galaxy, or the happy smile on a child's face after his dream of visiting Disneyworld has come true?"

Beyond the economic impact of the theme park, Buttkiss says a proposed film studio could generate revenues for the state.

Critics complain Disney is deliberately withholding most of the plans while dropping hints about the movie studio to build support for the project. And it seems to be working:The people in Kokopelli County are excited by Tinseltown glamour. Freelance signpainter Wanda Paicheck could hardly contain her enthusiasm for the idea. "I mean, of course they'll bring in all their own actors, crew, construction teams and support people, but they'll need extras sometimes."

Convenience store operator Ed Friendly agrees. "I don't want to count my chickens, but sooner or later some of them are bound to wander into this part of town, and when they do they'll stop for a slushie or a newspaper."

But Friendly may be in for a surprise. Disney isn't welcoming any competition inside its development. While planners hope local home and business owners will simply sell their property, the Entertainment District would be able to use the power of eminent domain to acquire the homes through condemnation.

And while there will be lots of filmmaking activity--Disney hopes to use the various UrbanMocks™ as backdrops--local residents will be obligated to appear in movies filmed in their neighborhoods.

"Most people are delighted at the opportunity to play a part in the creation of a major motion picture," reads one confidential memo. "However, there are always those residents who find some reason to object."

To prevent those "bad apples" from ruining things for everyone else, the report suggests designing CCRs which would force homeowners to allow filming in their neighborhoods and to participate in the films as extras, as needed. Additionally, the Entertainment Improvement District is expected to make it a Class-6 misdemeanor to interfere with filmmakers in any way.

But that's a slap on the wrist compared to the felony charges the Entertainment District could file against political activists. Disney seems particularly concerned with protests from environmentalists (although the memo also expresses concern about radical religious cults like the Southern Baptists).

"Although this project will only affect 600 square miles, representing a mere .5 percent of the Sonoran Desert, we can expect an outcry from the environmental community, which is likely to object no matter how sensitively we market this project," according to a draft memo. "But it will be within the legal power of the Entertainment District to declare such anti-social behavior a felony."

The memo proposed incarcerating protestors in an ersatz Alcatraz off the coast of McFrancisco. Tours would be available for the public, a plan which would turn environmental activists like Sandahl Crane into another tourist attraction.

"If I hadn't seen the documents, I don't think I'd believe this was true," Crane says. "I keep waiting for somebody to say, 'April Fool's!' "

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