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 4

The opponents charged that the pro-incorporation campaigners were encouraging people with no ties to Tusayan to register to vote. Some of the newly registered voters were offered jobs and housing in exchange for a "yes" vote, they said.

PDG countered with a series of Daily Show knockoff videos called The Tusayan Report that were distributed throughout the community, alleging that the anti-incorporation forces were registering voters from outside Tusayan. (In March, those campaign videos won a 2011 national award from the American Association of Political Consultants for best use of humor.)

Less than one week before the second incorporation election, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard rejected a request by the anti-incorporation campaign committee to initiate a grand jury investigation into allegations of voter registration fraud; his office cited budget cutbacks as the reason for his decision.

This time, voters approved incorporation by a comfortable margin -- 121 in favor and 76 against. (The incorporation campaign rounded up 59 more votes than in the 2008 election.)

Shearer told me, "Definitely, there was voter fraud" in the second incorporation election. "Whether it was able to change the outcome of the election, no one was able to determine." Halvorson, in a phone interview from his home base in Kirkland, Wash., rejected the allegations. "That just isn't true," he said. "I wouldn't have had anything to do with that."

The incorporation dramatically increased the size of Tusayan, from 144 acres to about 5,140 acres, including 3,900 acres of the Kaibab National Forest, 860 acres of state land at the airport, and a 160-acre parcel of private land known as Kotzin Ranch, which is owned by Gruppo Stilo. The math reportedly works out so that the Halvorson/Gruppo Stilo team now owns more than half of the private land in the new town.

A month after the incorporation election, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors appointed an interim town council to hold office until Tusayan could stage its first election for council seats. The board appointed Shearer as mayor and split the remaining four council seats between incorporation supporters and opponents. Clarinda Vail and her anti-incorporation ally, Ann Wren, were appointed to the interim council, as were incorporation supporters Greg Bryan and Al Montoya, the treasurer for United for Tusayan's campaign.

The town council election was scheduled for August 2010. Again, the developers swung into action, supporting a slate of five candidates. Abiding by a longstanding community tradition -- candidates for the local school board, fire and sanitary district never spend money seeking office -- Shearer, Wren and Vail spent no money on their town council election campaigns, Shearer and Vail said in interviews. PDG's five candidates -- Bryan, Maniaci, Montoya, Robert Blasi and John Rueter -- raised and spent an average of about $1,800 each, including their personal contributions. PDG employees, Halvorson and his son, Lon, and a Halvorson business associate provided nearly all the contributions to the developers' slate.

PDG had many ties to these five candidates. All of the campaign money they raised was paid to PDG to cover campaign "consulting" fees, according to campaign finance reports. (They didn't report itemized expenses typically associated with campaigns, such as brochures and websites.) And all five reported spending even more money on PDG consulting than they raised in their campaigns; each one incurred more than $2,000 in "debts and obligations" to PDG, according to their campaign finance reports. Some of the debts were repaid from cash contributions, but according to the most recent reports, filed last December, Bryan, Maniaci, Blasi and Montoya each still owed PDG $1,000. John Rueter reported owing $317.

At the same time PDG was managing their campaigns, an independent campaign committee, called Tusayan Moving Forward, operated a website and released a video attacking Vail, Wren and Shearer. The video featured the same actor that PDG used in its campaign videos before the March 2010 incorporation election.

There were other links between Tusayan Moving Forward and the developers, including Halvorson. State records show that Tusayan Moving Forward was funded by Medallion Ventures Inc., a Scottsdale-based real estate company managed by Tom DePaolo, a Gruppo Stilo partner. Medallion Ventures is also a partner with a Kirkland, Wash., company owned by the Halvorson family, called Alana LLC. That partnership takes shape as Logan-Luca, LLC, the entity that directly owns the 18-acre Tusayan trailer park.

Perhaps not surprisingly, all five of PDG's candidates won council seats.

This past February, many in Tusayan were surprised to learn of yet more entanglements between the Italian developers, Halvorson and the new town council members.

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