In the lobby of Papillon Helicopters' terminal at Grand Canyon National Park Airport, Enrique Ochoa stared at his smart phone, searching for a WiFi signal.
Unlike the scores of late-April tourists, who were waiting to board one of Papillon's noisy helicopters for a $175, 30-minute Grand Canyon sightseeing flight, Ochoa was simply trying to get some work done. Just a few days into his new job as Tusayan's first town manager, he was clearly frustrated.
He'd abandoned his 100-square-foot windowless office, tucked into the heliport's basement, because it lacked WiFi reception. The signal in the lobby was iffy, too. "It's difficult to get much done without access to the Net," said Ochoa, a Stanford grad and the former city manager of Arvin, Calif.
He maintained a sense of humor about his strangely located office, but it indicates a problematic relationship. A powerful consortium of developers -- including Papillon Helicopters' owner, Elling Halvorson -- has apparently taken control of tiny Tusayan, Arizona's newest incorporated town. Their increasing influence could have huge impacts on the national park, whose main gate is just two miles away. Halvorson's Italian partners -- the Percassi Group and its real estate affiliate, Gruppo Stilo USA -- have been secretly negotiating a zoning and development agreement with a private consultant hired by the Tusayan Town Council. Even Ochoa -- the town's only staffer -- didn't know the details, but the outline made public by the developers would transform Tusayan, which currently has only about 500 residents, into a world-class destination resort.
Gruppo Stilo's website envisions high-end stores selling luxury goods, four- and five-star hotels, time-share condos, a European-style health spa, a Western dude ranch, an entertainment pavilion featuring Native American themes, and a wide price range of residential housing meant, in part, for people who work locally.
Tusayan, such as it is, is the closest gateway town for the nation's second-busiest national park. (Great Smoky Mountains back East is the busiest.) The looming mega-development here coincides with the Arizona Department of Transportation's plans to spend $28 million to expand the local airport over the next three to five years. The airport project, funded primarily through federal grants, is expected to attract regularly scheduled commercial jet traffic -- bringing another 600,000 visitors to the park each year, state officials say, on top of the 4.4 million that currently crowd it during the tourist season.
The park's roads, parking lots, hotels, restaurants and other services are already chronically overwhelmed; if the Halvorson/Gruppo Stilo development and the airport expansion are both completed, the stress will only get worse. "Our infrastructure is not going to be able to handle a huge increase in visitation with large jets coming into the airport," said Mary Killeen, Grand Canyon National Park's chief of planning and compliance. The demand for canyon air tours, which already exceed 48,000 flights a year, will also likely increase, adding to the revenues for several of Halvorson's tour companies, which provide about 80 percent of the canyon's total helicopter and airplane tour flights (including four-hour excursions that sell for about $400 per person).
The prospect of even more air traffic comes at the same time that Grand Canyon National Park has released a long-awaited draft environmental impact statement on limiting canyon flights to restore natural quiet to more of the park. The DEIS was set in motion by the 1987 National Parks Overflights Act; the public can comment through June 20.
There are many concerns about all this ramped-up development on the park's doorstep. For example, where will the water supply come from? The developers have not disclosed where they intend to get water, but one of their attorneys mentioned drilling wells 3,000 feet deep into the aquifer. Some worry that would threaten the tributaries that flow down to the Colorado River at the Grand Canyon's bottom. "I really don't think a major expansion of facilities can be supported by pumping groundwater without some effect on seeps and springs in the canyon," said Carl Taylor, a member of the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, whose district includes Tusayan.
But like Ochoa, park and county officials have been excluded from the development negotiations between Tusayan and the Halvorson/Gruppo Stilo team. Only after the negotiations are completed, which should be sometime this summer, will the plan be presented to Tusayan's town council. And the developers appear to have plenty of allies on the five-member council.
Halvorson's companies, which include the 250-room Best Western Grand Canyon Squire Inn and an IMAX theater, employ hundreds of people here. Mayor Greg Bryan manages the inn, and two other town council members also work for Halvorson companies. A fourth council member, Vice Mayor Cecily Maniaci, operates restaurants in buildings she leases from Halvorson.
Meanwhile, the developers -- directly or indirectly -- have been the primary financial backers of the campaigns of all five council members, who were swept into office last November following the first election for town council seats. That backing included free trips to Italy and cash "bonuses" for some council members. No one expects the council, which also serves as the town's planning and zoning commission, to do anything but approve the developers' schemes.
For most of its history, Tusayan was just an island of ragtag private enterprise surrounded by federal and state land, apparently named for the nearby ruins of a small Pueblo Indian settlement. White settlers began ranching in the area in the 1800s, and a retired forest ranger homesteaded here in 1920. There were also a few local mines, but eventually the land -- gentle terrain decorated by ponderosa pines -- became more valuable as real estate. Prominent rancher and businessman R.P. "Rob" Thurston, a Georgia native who got into Western rodeo competitions, bought into Tusayan during the 1930s, building the first gas station and steakhouse. He succeeded in getting a state highway routed through his land, built the first hotel (the Red Feather Lodge) and pushed for a new local airport in the 1960s, according to Patrick Whitehurst's 2010 book, Grand Canyon's Tusayan Village.