Gila Bend, Arizona
A Snowbird’s Delight
When Scott Swanson and his mother acquired a relatively undeveloped campground in Gila Bend 18 months ago, they knew it had potential as an affordable winter park for snowbirds. They decided to join the Kampgrounds of America (KOA) franchise network to help put the park on the travelers’ map and started making improvements to bring their 130-site campground up to KOA standards.
After investing over $250,000 in improvements that include new landscaping, utility connections, a 4,000-square foot dog park, a 2,500 square foot veranda, and remodeling the park’s recreation room, the number of overnight guests and monthly snowbirds coming into their campground soon surpassed their best expectations.
“Year-to-date, we’re already running 60 percent ahead of last year’s figures, and we’ve already got people making reservations for next winter,” said Swanson, who sees the 1,900-population town of Gila Bend becoming Arizona’s next big snowbird destination.
Swanson isn’t the only one who sees a brighter future in Gila Bend. So does Gila Bend’s new town manager, Michael Celaya, who is spearheading a series of improvements to Gila Bend’s historical points of interest to raise its profile as a tourist destination and playground for winter snowbirds.
“I see us as the next Quartzsite,” said Celaya, referencing the tiny desert town 32 km (20 mi) east of the Colorado River that hosts the largest winter RV show in the nation.
Gila Bend, Celaya notes, is already at a major crossroads. Sitting alongside Interstate 8, it carries thousands of travelers each week who make their way from Phoenix and Tucson to San Diego. Gila Bend also straddles State Route 85, which carries travelers across the Sonora Desert to Mexico, crossing the historic Tohono O’Odham Indian Reservation.
The challenge, of course, is getting travelers to stop to see what Gila Bend has to offer. But the town of Gila Bend is working with the Chamber of Commerce and the local business community to do just that.
Gila Bend is making improvements to the Gatlin archeological site, which features remnants of native Hohokam farmers who lived in the area between 800 and 1,200 A.D. The site, a registered National Historic Landmark, is owned by the town of Gila Bend.
The town of Gila Bend also recently acquired Stout’s Hotel, a historic two-story, 26-room hotel designed and built in 1928 by Henry Trost, a famous architect known for his work with Mission, Pueblo Revival, Art Deco and Prairie architectural styles. The hotel, which used to house railroad workers, closed in the 1980s, but will be reopened for tourists in fall of 2018 after improvements are completed.
Other attractions include a 1,200-square foot museum, housed inside Gila Bend’s Town Hall, which includes Native American and Western artifacts.
Meanwhile, the Gila Bend Chamber of Commerce is working to organize major rodeo and western-themed events for a new Butterfield Stage Days Rodeo, which will take place in March of 2018. Hubbard said the event, which will include rodeo queens, music and activities, could bring thousands of new visitors into Gila Bend.
Gila Bend and the local chamber are also promoting other nearby sites of interest, including Painted Rock Petroglyph site, which sits on Bureau of Land Management property roughly 37 km (23 mi) west of Gila Bend.
Other nearby attractions include the historic copper mining town of Ajo, 48 km (30 mi) to the south, and the Gillespie Bridge, a historic 1,660foot long bridge, built in 1927, that crosses the Gila River roughly 37 km (23 mi) north of Gila Bend. Another scenic site, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, is roughly 97 km (60 mi) south of town.
All of these attractions are enough to keep people busy for at least two or three days, if not longer, said Celaya, the town manager.
For more information about the Gila Bend KOA, the town of Gila Bend and the Gila Bend Chamber of Commerce, please visit their respective websites at: www.koa.com/camp/gila-bend, www.gilabendaz.org, www.gilabendazchamber.com. The Gila Bend KOA is affiliated with the Arizona Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, which hosts www.GoCampingInArizona.com, the statewide travel planning website.