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Old Tucson getting new lease on life thanks to American Heritage Railways

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Mar. 18, 2022 at 12:42 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 19, 2022 at 10:28 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz”D. (KOLD News 13) - After nearly two years, Old Tucson is getting a new lease on life.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote to award a contract to operate the Tucson landmark to American Heritage Railways. The vote will happen during the board’s next meeting, which is set for April 5.

In awarding the contract, Pima County said it wants to bring back some of the things that made Old Tucson a tourist attraction which drew a half a million visitors a year, like movie making.

“Do I think filming will happen at Old Tucson? Yes,” said Diane Frisch, the Director of Tourism and Attractions for Pima County. “Do they have relationships already deep in the industry? Yes they do.”

One of the things that made Old Tucson so attractive to tourists was the fact so many movies were made there beginning in 1939. A fire in 1994 destroyed the old movie sets, filming stopped for the most part and attendance plummeted.

American Heritage Railways has ties to the movie industry.

“They have relationships with film companies which is very important to us,” Frisch said. “And so it seemed to be the right match and the right time.”

The timing may be right. Next week, the Arizona legislature is scheduled to determine the fate of SB1708, which will restore the tax incentives the state cut years ago, which also hampered filming at Od Tucson.

If passed it will give the movie industry $150 million in tas breas annually.

It isn’t known how long it will take the company to make the necessary improvements to open.

“I think we have to realize that it’s a new company coming in to the property, we’re just coming out of covid, they have to hire staff, but I think their hope is to open all or partially very quickly,” Frisch said.

According to a document from the county, American Heritage Railways “was founded in 1998 and has a variety of experience in the railroad, entertainment, theatrical, and hospitality

The company operates a dozen attractions like Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, the Grand Imperial Hotel and True West Rodeo

Allen Harper, the CEO and Chairman, of AHR has spent the last quarter-century “with historic railways, theme parks, hotels and other tourist attractions.”

Some of the key points of the agreement between Pima County and AHR are:

  • The facility will remain Old Tucson Studios.
  • Some of the activities that will be offered at the park will include concerts, outdoor events, soundstages trails and restaurants.
  • They will try to continue Old Tucson’s history as a filming location with “relationships with major studios, Film Tucson, Arizona Department of Film and Pima County.”
  • The term of the agreement is five years with the possibility of two 10-year extensions.
  • AHR will pay the county $60,000 per year for rent. The rent may be adjusted every five years.
  • AHR will pay the county 4% of annual gross operating revenue during the first five years. That would drop to 2% if the agreement is extended.
  • AHR will dedicate 2% of the gross operating revenue for maintenance, improvement projects or expansions.
  • The Old Tucson Studios trademark will be owned by Pima County.
  • The facility will be open to the public.
  • AHR will support youth education programs in the county.
  • AHR will promote Tucson as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
  • AHR will have to get the Pima County Board of Supervisors’ approval for any alterations over $500,000.

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