Old Tucson Studios announced Tuesday that it will close indefinitely, the latest victim of COVID-19.
Pima County will take control of the property Monday and the Board of Supervisors is expected to terminate the lease with its current operator, Old Tucson Company, at a meeting Sept. 15.
The lease originated in 1973, and was set to expire Dec. 31, 2023. Old Tucson Company renewed the lease in 1983, when it took over operations, according to a lawyer who has represented the company. The lease is for 360 acres in Tucson Mountain Park and Old Tucson uses about 180 acres.
Chief Deputy County Administrator Jan Lesher said the closure will affect "about 30 employees" and that Old Tucson Company would retain ownership of some infrastructure which they built or own.
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the county owns all of the buildings and Old Tucson Company is retaining ownership of personal property such as gift shop inventory and restaurant equipment, which will remain on site.
Huckelberry said Old Tucson Company could sell the equipment to a future park operator but it is also possible the company could bid at a later date to re-operate the park if the county decides to re-lease it through a competitive process.
He said the company was the recipient of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) coronavirus funding but has since exhausted the federal assistance.
A spokeswoman from a public relations firm representing Old Tucson Company said eight regular, full-time employees and 136 part-time, on-call seasonal employees would be affected by the closure.
"The company is focused on the current transition and has no definitive plans to announce at this time," the spokeswoman said when asked what the company would do with its personal property, which will remain on site at the theme park. She also said the company did not consider bankruptcy as an option.
Old Tucson General Manager Terry Verhage said they tried to make it work.
“We did everything possible to keep our loyal fans safe when we were open, but the ongoing COVID-19 public health protocols and restrictions limited park attendance to the point where Old Tucson could no longer stay in business,” he said in a press release.
Huckelberry said in a memo that the county will establish a task force made up of cultural and natural resource representatives “to consider how the property might be repurposed with the goal of having an operator in place within the next six to eight months.”
Old Tucson was built in 1939 by Columbia Pictures for its film “Arizona,” and opened to the public as a Western-themed attraction in 1960. It was closed in 1995, after a fire destroyed about 40 percent of its buildings, and did not reopen until 1997.
Since the fire, other factors have added to its financial challenges, including across-the-board impacts to tourism caused by the Great Recession and changes to state laws that eliminated support for filming in Arizona and made Old Tucson more expensive to operate, according to a press release.
Two weeks ago Old Tucson announced the cancellation of Nightfall, its signature Halloween event that drew more than 34,000 people in 2019, and helped to cover its annual operational costs. Huckelberry said it brought in about 85% of the company's annual revenues.
After the statewide shutdown, the theme park opened Memorial Day weekend on a limited basis selling food and retail items.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and the inability to host crowd-based events like the annual Nightfall have become the final hurdle that Old Tucson Studios could not clear,” Huckelberry wrote.
“Old Tucson was and has the potential to still be an important contributor to the regional tourist economy,” Pima County Attractions and Tourism Office Director Dian Frisch said in a press release; she was not available for questions.
Huckelberry said the county will provide utilities, insurance and security to maintain the premises and manage the theme park’s infrastructure so it does not deteriorate.
“I believe that a beneficial public use of the property will be found that respects both the history and the natural environment of the property,” Huckelberry wrote.
Since 2010, nine movies, indie Westerns like "Tombstone-Rashomon," "The Legend of 5 Mile Cave" and "Hot Bath an' a Stiff Drink" were filmed at Old Tucson, according to Film Tucson. The latest, Avondale Pictures' "The Righteous Twelve," is expected to be released in 2021.
Huckelberry said the park will continue to be open to filmmaking while the county determines its future.
“The current status is a great disappointment because it’s fallen victim to the COVID virus,” Supervisor Steve Christy said. “It is and has always been in my lifetime an iconic institution in our community, deeply embedded in the fabric of Tucson.”
Christy said Old Tucson was a “real treasure” to share with guests from out of town and that his mom had a role as an extra in the early 1960s film “Deadly Companions,” one of more than 400 movies and commercials filmed at the site.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Ramón Valadez said "a huge part of our nation’s film history is embedded in the land and scenic vistas of the Tucson Mountains. Whatever the park’s future may be, the county will endeavor to preserve and honor that history.”
Dan Gibson, senior director of communications for Visit Tucson, hopes the closure is temporary and said his organization will work with the Attractions and Tourism Office "to find, new innovative ways to use that space as Tucson recovers" from the pandemic.
"The appeal of the Old West, especially as seen on film, is definitely something that draws visitors to Tucson, so losing Old Tucson, hopefully temporarily, definitely hurts.
"Thankfully, we still have ways for potential visitors to experience a bit of that lifestyle through our guest ranches and attractions like Trail Dust Town and the annual Fiesta de los Vaqueros, even road trips to Tombstone to tell that part of Southern Arizona’s story," he said.
Harry Alexander, host of “Voices of the West” podcast which aired for years on KVOI radio in Tucson, said,
“It’s a sad day in movie history."