Wal-Mart plans superstore at ancient ruins
Wal-Mart plans superstore at ancient ruins

Unavoidable sign of sprawl

COOLIDGE, Ariz. - The nation's oldest archaeological preserve and one of its first national monuments, the Casa Grande Ruins, is about to get a new neighbor: a Wal-Mart superstore.

It's an unavoidable sign of the urban sprawl steadily creeping up on the site, an ancestral settlement of the prehistoric Hohokam Indians 60 miles south of Phoenix.

"In an ideal world, it would be nice to have pristine country all around the national monuments," said Keith Kintigh, president of the Society for American Archaeology and an Arizona State University archaeology professor.

But Arizona, where sprawl sometimes seems to be the rule, is far from that ideal.

Today, only an irrigation canal separates the monument from homes and a trailer park to the south. The Wal-Mart planned across the street is north of an existing Safeway grocery store.

And more development could be on its way.

Farm land to the north, across Arizona 87, could potentially be up for sale while federal officials are talking about locating a temporary holding facility for up to 2,000 felons to the west.

Inevitably, the only question will be whether the monument is surrounded by clean industry or dirty industry, said monument Superintendent Donald Spencer.

"I do not want dirty industry on either side of the ruins around me," Spencer said. "We've had some council people that would sell the town for an oil refinery plant that would employ a lot of people."

The ruins, which have been protected since 1889 and became a national monument in 1918, draw 170,000 visitors a year.

The highlight is the Casa Grande, or Great House as it was called by early Spanish explorers. The 60-foot-long, four-story structure was hand-built before 1350 by the Hohokam of a concrete-like mud called caliche.

Because of concerns that future development would detract visually from the monument, restrictions were imposed several years ago on what's now the Wal-Mart property, including a height limit of 20 feet on signs and requirements that compatible earth tones be used.

"We didn't want to see any 40-foot neon Indians with a tomahawk," Spencer said.

Spencer said he is actually pleased with how Wal-Mart went about planning its 107,000-square-foot store, which could open this fall.

Wal-Mart officials responded to concerns from archaeologists and Indian tribes, including the Gila River Indian Community, about what might be buried on the company's land, which lies in the middle of a 2-square-mile area encompassing the ruins.

The company ordered archaeological testing, moved the remains of the only human found to an Indian site, moved its building site to part of the property not considered historically sensitive and donated 13 acres thought to hold buried historical remnants to the nonprofit Archaeology Conservancy.

"They have gone far beyond the legal requirements and what we can legally expect any developer to do," said Kintigh. "I'm quite comfortable with their response."

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amy Hill said the company tried to accommodate both the city and the archaeological community.

There are still critics, though they largely tend to be focusing on economic concerns.

A few merchants are predicting Wal-Mart will spell disaster for some local businesses.

Jerry Wofford, owner of Coolidge Grain and Warehouse, attributed Wal-Mart's archaeological decisions to a need to assuage public opinion.

"I probably wouldn't be as much against them coming in if they weren't known within small communities to run little businesses out of business," he said. "But then, I hate to see sprawl. If they have to have it, move into town where we already have stuff, buy up these old lots and build their development."

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