Bob Sharpe, the visionary behind Rancho Sahuarita, one of the most successful planned communities in the nation, died Wednesday after a four-year battle with brain cancer. He was 67.
Sharpe died at his home in Snowmass, Colorado, and is survived by his wife, Deborah, and three children. A funeral was held Friday morning.
Sharpe had beaten the odds after he was diagnosed in March 2015 with glioblastoma, a fast-growing brain tumor that is often fatal within a year. The cancer returned in 2018, and by then Sharpe was deeply immersed in helping find a cure, though he knew the chances he’d benefit from it were slim.
He founded the Rancho Sahuarita Cancer Walk in 2017, which has contributed more than $1 million to the Sharpe/National Brain Tumor Society Brain Cancer Research Awards to fund cutting-edge brain cancer studies across the country.
Through his diagnosis and exhausting treatments, Sharpe remained positive, an approach he said gave him hope, joy and purpose.
“I realized that I had everything to gain by spending the remaining days of my life having an optimistic, positive and grateful attitude, being thoughtful and encouraging, and doing things that bring joy, happiness and fulfillment to others,” Sharpe wrote on a National Brain Tumor Society website. “Improving the lives of others is inspirational and makes my life more productive and meaningful.”
He launched the Today Is a Good Day Foundation, named for a favorite saying, and passed out stickers emblazoned with the words over a photo of a Hawaii sunset, a place he loved.
“Every day after my surgery, (son) Jeremy would call me and ask, ‘How are you feeling today?’ No matter what had happened that day, I would always say, ‘Today is a good day,’” Sharpe told the ULI Foundation in 2017. “Jeremy surprised me on my one-year survival anniversary with 1,000 ‘Today Is a Good Day’ stickers, and over the past year I have handed out over 3,000 stickers to people. Since my surgery, I have devoted my life to helping others afflicted by cancer but [who] don’t have my resources or connections with the goal of having something good come out of my own struggle with brain cancer.”
Cancer wasn’t Bob Sharpe’s first battle against seemingly insurmountable odds.
When he shared his vision of an affordable master-planned community at a dusty crossroads 15 miles south of Tucson, some of his peers thought it was crazy.
The 3,000-acre location wasn’t served by utilities, there was little in the way of roads, and Pima County told the developer of Rancho Sahuarita to connect to the sewer system in Tucson — at a cost of about $7 million.
“Most people who heard of it back in the ’90s — bankers, real estate agents, builders — thought I was nuts,” Sharpe said in a 2012 interview with the Sahuarita Sun. “Nothing like this had been done.”
But the persistent Sharpe had a unique vision and “wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
It paid off. Rancho Sahuarita, which closed its first home in 2002, flourished. In 2014, the project received Metropolitan Pima Alliance’s Project of the Decade award — in part because of the challenges Sharpe overcame to get it done.
“We wanted to sell lifestyle and not just homes — nobody had ever done that in Tucson for families,” Sharpe said. “We did it.”
Thousands of homes, a shopping center, parks and schools — many built on land donated by Sharpe — sprang up as Rancho Sahuarita grew. Sharpe’s vision prompted the incorporation of the town 25 years ago, and put the community on the map nationally with strong sales, amenities and a commitment to quality.
Other subdivisions “didn’t create a sense of community or belonging. Each looked like the next subdivision,” Sharpe said. “When you drive through Rancho Sahuarita, you know you are in it” because of the consistent architectural design.
After he was diagnosed with brain cancer, Sharpe turned over the company to his son, Jeremy, who ran day-to-day operations with his father’s guidance. Sharpe focused on his health and ensuring his final years would have a lasting effect. He talked to glioblastoma patients across the country and used his contacts to raise awareness and dollars for research.
“It is very rewarding for me to devote whatever time I may have left to funding highly promising research that could eventually help my new brain cancer friends live longer,” Sharpe said last year.
Sahuarita Mayor Tom Murphy, who was Rancho Sahuarita’s community liaison for five years, said it was Sharpe’s attention to detail that set the community apart.
“He took the best of other communities and made it Rancho Sahuarita, whether it was the train or the lake,” Murphy said. “And he was always proud of his original idea of the Safari Park.”
Murphy said there was often a push-pull with local leaders getting approval for some of the details Sharpe demanded in the community — even asking that all four sides of a building look nice, not just the front.
Murphy chuckled when he recalled Sharpe’s insistence that there be stone on the pillars at a gas station to set it apart.
“You’d have to drive far and wide to find those little touches,” Murphy said. “The only other place I saw that was Scottsdale.”
“He was a businessman and was tenacious with the architectural control. Rancho Sahuarita looks like what it does because of that.”
Murphy said Sharpe was a student of development, learning from others’ mistakes and bringing the best to Sahuarita. Before the recession, Rancho Sahuarita was often among the top 10 best-selling communities in the United States.
“He was always generous and very, very loyal. He kept the team together during the recession because he wanted the good people with him when we came out of it.”
Sharpe said creating a place for families and building a community that included churches, parks and shopping was important.
“He didn’t want to ‘just sell it’ and move on,” Murphy said. “Creating a sense of community was very important to him.”
Michael Racy, a lobbyist who has worked for Rancho Sahuarita, knew Sharpe for more than 30 years.
He agreed that everybody thought the idea of Rancho Sahuarita “was nuts” when first proposed.
In the end, Racy said he had never seen a developer with such a strong vision and who was willing to see it through regardless of what it took.
“The project was like one of his kids,” Racy said, calling it the most successful development of its kind in Southern Arizona.
Manny Valenzuela, superintendent of the Sahuarita Unified School District, said Sharpe’s life modeled excellence.
“Of course, he was a driven and successful businessman who had transformational impact on the growth and direction of Sahuarita,” he said. “He was also a visionary, a thoughtful leader, who exemplified a belief in people and creating great communities together.”
Valenzuela said Sharpe donated about 50 acres of land for schools and other educational facilities in Sahuarita.
“Mr. Sharpe was an eternal optimist who believed in the power of community and striving to find common ground.”