Old Tucson will have a new operator after being closed for two years

KOLD News 6-6:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Feb. 16, 2022 at 7:04 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Pima County will announce the new operator of Old Tucson at one of its March supervisor meetings. The board will approve an operating agreement which has been nearly two years in the making.

Old Tucson has been closed since September 2020, when the county assumed control and appointed a 14 person task force to find a new operator.

Because of confidentiality agreements, the name of the new operator cannot be released at this time.

What it might look like in the future is unclear but the county maintains it will retain its present look and feel of an old west theme park.

What changes may be made won’t be known publicly until the board votes on a new operating agreement.

Pete Mangelsdorf, who was the General Manager of Old Tucson for 14 years, believes the theme park has a bright future but may not include as much emphasis on movie making.

“Relying on the movie industry is a pretty fickle thing,” he said. “You can’t rely on that, especially in this current climate.”

State lawmakers ended tax breaks for the movie industry several years ago which sent most Hollywood producers fleeing to other states, such as New Mexico.

“Our state government is not really on board with the movie industry,” he said.

Some producers said they liked the facilities but without the tax breaks, it just made financial sense to go elsewhere.

“Before Tarantino filmed ‘Django Unchained’ he came to Old Tucson, he loved it, I spoke to him,” he said. “He looked at the new sets we were building, he took pictures, he loved them but he told me honestly he couldn’t do it in Arizona because of the tax break situation.”

There’s no doubt that’s hurt the park’s bottom line but financially, it’s always been a struggle even in the movie making heyday.

“Old Tucson back in those days didn’t make a lot of money,” Mangelsdorf said. “It definitely didn’t make money after the fire.”

A fire in 1995 destroyed much of the movie set of which Old Tucson never fully recovered.

“The folks who controlled the lease were actually dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into it every year just to keep it running,” he said.

Because the attraction had become such a money pit, the county severed the lease and began looking for the new operator.

It was narrowed down to two potential operators who very given tours of the site by county workers.

Mangelsdorf hopes the new operators will put a large capital infusion into the site and restore its buildings to look more like Tucson did in the 1880′s or 90′s.

“You can come to Old Tucson and kind of experience what it was like to live in the old west and take that away with you,” he said. “And it wouldn’t just be a tourist attraction, it would be good for the residents of Pima County.”

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