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Featured Citizen — Jim Williams, January 2024

The Town Storyteller

Every community needs a good storyteller, and historian Jim Williams has definitely earned his place with his lovingly-crafted new book: Oro Valley: The First 50 Years.

While he originally had not planned to write a sequel to his book Claiming the Desert: Settlers, Homesteaders, and Ranchers in Oro Valley, Arizona, 1865-1965, Jim found that he had a lot of time during the Covid lockdowns to search through historical documents about OV – many of which had been recently digitized.

After doing a long deep dive through these media and government sources – and with a few additional materials from the Arizona Historical Society and the OV Historical Society – Jim was able to put together his masterful account of the town’s history.

While the First 50 Years is rich in detail, it does not read like a typical history book. Jim neatly packages 12 discrete investigations into individual chapters. Though more or less chronological, it’s a narrative that you can pick up any point.

“I’ve had a few people who have lived here 30 or 40 years tell me that they enjoyed jumping from subject to subject,” Jim says. “ They didn’t read the book straight through from start to finish.”

Indeed, residents new and old will immediately find something pertinent to their own OV experience when they pick up this rich chronicle of the town’s history.

Oro Valley: The First 50 Years

Chapter Summaries (followed by Q&A with author Jim Williams)

  1. The Formation of Oro ValleyA small group of determined individuals fought Pima County and the City of Tucson to establish the municipality of Oro Valley. Following incorporation, they battled residents who opposed the formation of the town.
  2. Catalina State ParkThe land area that became Catalina State Park was settled by homesteaders and wealthy ranchers between 1870 and 1950. In 1970, developers planned to subdivide over 5,000 acres and build 6,800 housing units. A group of environmental activists campaigned to use the land for a state park. They worked doggedly over ten years to convince Arizona and Pima County officials to establish Catalina State Park.
  3. Tiny TownOro Valley was a “tiny town” with 1,200 residents in 1975. The town grew bigger through the 1970s and 1980s by annexing new areas and permitting housing construction. With more residents came a larger local government and political conflict over land use issues.
  4. Rancho VistosoRancho Vistoso originally was a large cattle ranch established in this area in the 1940s. It became the largest planned development on the northwest side of Tucson when Pima County approved it in 1977. Oro Valley annexed Rancho Vistoso in 1986. Soon after that, the owners of Rancho Vistoso went bankrupt as part of the Savings and Loan recession. After 1992, Rancho Vistoso grew gradually, with housing, shopping centers, offices, and an industrial park.
  5. Growing Pains in the 1990sOro Valley annexed additional land and its population grew rapidly in the 1990s. The town suffered “growing pains” with increased political conflict and frequent efforts to recall public officials. At the same time, local government grew in both size and complexity, two general plans were adopted, and the town purchased two water companies.
  6. Tortolita and Honey Bee CanyonTortolita was a rural area immediately west of Oro Valley in the 1990s. The residents of Tortolita circulated petitions to incorporate their area, but they were stymied by opposition from Tucson and Oro Valley governments. The development of Honey Bee Canyon, a unique natural area in Oro Valley, was a political controversy in the town from 1995 through the mid-2000s.
  7. The New Millenium (2000-2009)In the first decade of the 21st century, Oro Valley continued to grow despite two national economic recessions. Political factions and leaders fought over the development of a park on the Naranja Town Site and the granting of tax incentives to struggling shopping centers and hotels. The annexation of Arroyo Grande, a 14-square-mile vacant area north of Rancho Vistoso, was considered but not finalized. Oro Valley negotiated with Tucson and Pima County to obtain rights to water from the Central Arizona Project, as well as effluent water.
  8. Steam Pump RanchSteam Pump Ranch was established by the Pusch family in the 1870s and they held it until 1925. Subsequently, the Procter and Leiber families held the land from 1938 to 2006. After plans were announced to develop the park with historic buildings, citizens pressured Oro Valley government to purchase the ranch as a community historic site. Since that action, the town has restored several buildings on the property.
  9. Growth and Golf Issues (2010-2018)In part to counter the effects of an economic recession, the town council streamlined the development approval process and created an economic expansion zone to attract industry. The council also purchased 45 holes of golf and a community center, a decision that led to public protest and the defeat of several elected officials.
  10. Recent EventsThe coronavirus pandemic began locally in March 2020 and forced Oro Valley to end public attendance at meetings. The town also used federal grant funds to provide aid to businesses in distress during the pandemic. During 2018-2022, the council made plans to refurbish the newly-purchased golf courses. Also, working with a citizen group, private donations were raised to purchase the closed Golf Club at Vistoso and convert it into a nature preserve.
  11. Social and Cultural InstitutionsOro Valley has many important social and cultural institutions. These include many homeowner associations that provide services to their residents, as well as influential non-profits like the Greater Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce. The community has many fine private and public schools, as well as a variety of religious institutions.
  12. The “Look” of Oro ValleyWhile Oro Valley is situated in a beautiful natural setting, local government policies and decisions have established the attractive “look” of the town that entices newcomers to move here. The town has adopted a thorough planning process and gradually developed an extensive park system.
  13. Contemporary Water IssuesLike other communities in the Southwest, Oro Valley is experiencing a megadrought that began 23 years ago. The town will have to find ways to carefully manage its use of ground water and surface water obtained from the Central Arizona Project.
  14. ConclusionsA variety of political and social leaders from the community commented on the successes of Oro Valley and the problems it faces in the future. Several long-term trends that impact the town were discussed by the author.

Addendum: Oro Valley Government Today

Oro Valley has a council-manager form of government, with an elected town council that hires the town manager. The council also appoints citizens to boards and commissions that provide advice to town leaders. The town manager and police chief oversee the equivalent of 392 full-time employees (2021).


Q & A with Author Jim Williams

What are the big takeaways from the book?

There are a lot of details, but I think there are themes about development, the environment, and the changing political climate. People can get a better understanding of how the community grew and changed over five decades.

There are a lot of tense politics in OV’s history. How did you handle that?

I avoided any discussion of personalities. Some people shared some things about people. I did not think it was really appropriate to include this. I tried to include opposing sides on key issues.

I kind of like the idea of being outside of current politics so I get more of a perspective. If you are writing about it, you have to be more general and somewhat separate. I tried to view it from the 30,000-foot level.

What made OV what it is today?

I don’t think there is any one person that can say they “shaped OV”…There are some forces at work here that are bigger than any person.

About the Author:

Since retiring to Oro Valley in 2006, Jim has written two articles for the Journal of Arizona History. He teaches courses in history for the Sun City Oro Valley Institute for Learning in Retirement, and offers programs on local history to community groups. He also leads “history hikes” for community groups and the Sun City Vistoso Hiking Club. Jim served on the board of the Oro Valley Historical Society for six years. Jim published Claiming the Desert: Settlers, Homesteaders, and Ranchers in Oro Valley, Arizona, 1865-1965 in 2018.

Where can I find a copy?

Oro Valley the First 50 Years is available at Steam Pump Ranch, and can also be purchased on Amazon.

By Tom Ekman, J.D., M.Ed