How developers and businessmen cash in on Grand Canyon overflights

  • Helicopter flies low over the Grand Canyon.

    National Park Service
  • Tourists wait inside the Grand Canyon Airport in Tusayan, Arizona, where a fleet of Papillon helicopters stands ready for the next canyon excursion. The airport is already the fourth-busiest in the state, and it's slated for expansion at the same time that developers are proposing major new tourism projects in Tusayan.

    Tom Brownold
  • Tusayan Mayor Greg Bryan, who works at an inn owned by Elling Halvorson, was elected along with four other developer-backed candidates.

    John Dougherty
  • The Tusayan strip could get a lot more crowded -- and include a new outlet mall -- if Italian developers have their way.

    Tom Brownold
  • Employee housing in Tusayan.

    Tom Brownold
  • Western Times toes the company line with front-page editorials supporting Elling Halvorson's ambitions for Tusayan.

  • Campaign flier for the five candidates backed by the developers.

  • Tusayan Vice Mayor Cecily Maniaci shields herself from the press on her way into the May council meeting in Tusayan.

    John Dougherty
  • Vittorio Bianchi (top left) of Gruppo Stilo discusses development plans at a community open house in Tusayan in March.

    Tusayan's Future
  • A helicopter flies in the Dragon Corridor over the Grand Canyon.

    Tom Brownold
  • The map for the Gruppo Stilo proposal for Tusayan's expansion includes the Kotzin Ranch parcel, which was included in the boundaries of the newly incorporated town; the Ten X Ranch parcel, which is in the national forest outside town; and the Camper Village parcel where Elling Halvorson and Gruppo Stilo are partners.

    Tusayan's Future

Page 3

In the 1980s, while Ober was one of DeConcini's top aides, he was also a partner in a home-building company that got more than $110 million in loans from savings-and-loan magnate Charles H. Keating Jr., who was eventually sent to prison for fraud. Keating backed DeConcini's campaigns and DeConcini sought to undermine banking regulations that Keating opposed. When the story broke, DeConcini and Ober denied any wrongdoing, but DeConcini was rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee for his dealings with Keating and didn't run for re-election in 1994; Ober paid $200,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by investors who thought he'd helped Keating create fraudulent profits. Ober did not return phone calls and emails for this story.

In the second attempt to convince Tusayan voters it was in their best interest to incorporate, Ober's Policy Development Group shifted the debate away from the question of development on the park's doorstep. Instead, the pro-incorporation campaign said that oppressed workers in Tusayan needed to be liberated from the cruel dictatorship of greedy landowners -- particularly Clarinda Thurston Vail, manager of the Red Feather Inn and a grand-daughter of R.P. Thurston. Vail, her relatives and a few other families with longstanding holdings in Tusayan were the root cause of local inequity, PDG's campaign charged.

"They raped, pillaged and plundered this area," Cecily Maniaci told me in an April interview. She was chairwoman of the pro-incorporation United for Tusayan campaign committee.

Halvorson helped pump that message into the community; he started a weekly newspaper in 2009 called the Western Times, based in the Western Discovery Museum. (Halvorson briefly ran the museum, which has since closed.) The Western Times hired Joel Nilsson, a former top editor from the state's leading daily, the Arizona Republic. Nilsson wrote columns extolling the virtues of incorporation and promised that it would bring housing opportunities to Tusayan's workers. "Vote yes," he repeatedly urged readers in front-page editorials under banner headlines.

There is a constant demand for more housing units in Tusayan, but also great disagreement over whether incorporation would solve the problem. Only a handful of people own houses, and vacant land is expensive. Many of the local workers are foreign college students who rotate swiftly through the community, earning low wages at fast-food restaurants and motels. Most workers live in company-owned housing that ranges from modern, well-built apartments to college-style dormitories to rundown trailers. Employees who lose their jobs also lose their homes.

PDG's campaign produced a series of videos supporting incorporation, claiming that landowners like the Thurstons and Ann Wren, the manager of a motel called the Grand Canyon Plaza Resort, provided substandard housing. But when Clarinda Vail drove me around Tusayan in April, I saw some well-kept, heavily subsidized apartments offered by her camp.

Vail, who has lived in Tusayan for 38 years, is president of the Grand Canyon Unified School District's governing board and helps with the community's fire and sanitation districts. Her tour led us through residential areas tucked into the hills and trees behind the commercial strip. The housing ranged from ragged singlewide trailers to solid, two-story apartments, relatively modern doublewide mobile homes and a couple of custom-built homes, including a large house owned by the Halvorson family. Wren had begun construction of a new apartment complex behind her motel.

Among the worst living conditions I saw were some dilapidated two-story apartments owned by Halvorson, near a parcel that was recently cleared of mobile homes. Across the street, in the 18-acre RV park jointly owned by Halvorson/Gruppo Stilo, trailers were being used for year-round housing, according to a lawyer who works for the developers' opponents.

No one knows how many local workers want to purchase a home, or -- perhaps more relevant -- how many could afford to do so, given the wages in their service-industry jobs. But the developers promised to give 40 acres to the town that could be used to create subsidized housing if incorporation was approved. The offer of free land for "affordable" housing became the rallying cry for incorporation supporters.

"The only reason to incorporate this community was that the Stilo group stepped up and said they would donate 40 acres of land," Tusayan Mayor Bryan told me during an interview in his office in Halvorson's Squire Inn. "Without that opportunity, nothing will ever change."

Skeptics scoff at the 40-acre offer, claiming it won't be nearly enough to cover the needs of current employees, let alone future ones: The many-faceted massive development project would require hundreds of additional workers, greatly increasing demand for affordable housing.

"They are only providing housing for the needs they are creating," said Peter Shearer, who's lived here more than 35 years and has served in various community organizations, including the task force that studied incorporation. He works as Papillon Helicopters' maintenance manager but remained neutral on the incorporation campaign.

The second incorporation election took place on March 9, 2010. It was less than 18 months after the first incorporation election, and the number of Tusayan registered voters had skyrocketed to 244, a 43 percent increase, even though there had been no increase in local housing. More than 30 of the new voters listed their residence as the 18-acre RV campground, where Halvorson and Gruppo Stilo are partners. This election campaign became the most expensive in Coconino County's history.

According to United for Tusayan's campaign finance reports, the committee spent $640,000 -- much of it on defending legal challenges filed by the Thurston camp, which sought to prevent the election. PDG was paid more than $27,000 for its consulting role. The opponents only spent about $85,000, according to their campaign finance reports (although that doesn't include what the opponents spent out of their own pockets for lawyers, the incorporation backers say).

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