Editor’s Note: As 2018 comes to a close, the Yuma Sun reporting staff met with local government officials for a look back at the year. This story is one in a series called “2018: Year in Review.”
Yuma experienced a whirlwind year of activity in 2018.
“It’s a huge year for economic development and job creation,” City Administrator Greg Wilkinson said. “We were extremely busy on the economic development side, tremendously successful both as a city and working with partners.”
Aerospace firm AQST Space Systems Group announced plans to relocate its secured manufacturing into the Defense Contractor Complex at the Yuma International Airport. The company is bringing 200 manufacturing jobs to Yuma.
City officials continued discussions on policies regarding the use of “smart city” technology. In 2017 Yuma entered into a 25-year contract with anyCOMM Holdings for the installing, upgrading and maintaining of “smart city” capabilities on all streetlights, at no cost to the city. However, the shipment of node components from China is being held up due to $2.5 million in tariffs being imposed.
The nodes were to be installed in conjunction with a LED streetlight conversion project this year. Siemens Industry is handling the streetlight replacement project, which is set to wrap up by the end of this year. Nevertheless, anyCOMM has started testing a handful of installed nodes.
Wilkinson noted that AQST and anyCOMM are opening high-tech frontiers in Yuma, prompting partnerships with STEDY (Southwest Technical Education District of Yuma) and Arizona Western College to provide the needed workforce.
Other high-profile companies also chose Yuma, with one global company that manufactures spices and herbs planning to build a production facility here. Gourmet Garden, a company of McCormick & Company, will invest $38.5 million for land, building and equipment at the facility to be located in the Yuma Commerce Center. The facility is expected to be at full operation in 2020, bringing 89 full-time jobs.
Other new businesses announced plans to locate to Yuma and/or broke ground for construction projects, including MPW Industrial Services, which is building a 30,000-square-foot industrial water regeneration plant that will eventually have 44 new jobs. The four-story Home2 Suites by Hilton, a 114-room extended stay hotel, is now being built at the northeast corner of 1st Street and Madison Avenue.
Not surprisingly, Yuma received recognition as one of the top cities in the country in the percentage of job creation and increase in average family income.
“The developers and builders and everyone is busy and have plenty of work. They can’t find enough workers,” Wilkinson said.
Another project is soon coming to fruition. With help from the late Sen. John McCain, this year funding for a new Arizona State Veteran Home in Yuma was finalized. The project should break ground in late spring on land donated by the city in the vicinity of Avenue 6E and 34th Street. The facility will hold four 16-bed long-term care units and one memory care unit.
One major project that came to a conclusion is the Mesa Heights Apartments, a 58-unit complex built on Arizona Avenue. The new $13.8 million housing development, the result of public-private partnerships, is intended for low- and moderate-income families.
The project is a victory for stakeholders who overcame obstacles, including an arson fire in January that destroyed part of the project under construction. Police arrested five suspects in connection to the arson, making the victory even sweeter.
Yuma also celebrated the opening of Playa Linda, the city’s third riverfront beach. Located in the West Wetlands Park, it has an ADA-accessible ramp, seating wall, open grass area, sand beach, shade trees and new trails connecting to the park.
The beautification of the city continued, with murals popping up everywhere. Internationally known artist MOMO painted a mural on the three-story wall of the Yuma Art Center. NexGen Arts Committee's Mural-a-Month program brought in Mexican artist Adry del Rocio to paint a colorful mural on a wall of the Del Sol Market on 4th Avenue. Soon after, graffiti depicting hate symbols and racial slurs appeared, but the hate messages brought people of all races and walks of life together to erase the graffiti.
Yuma also faced some challenges in 2018. Following initial discussions on how to better compensate police officers and stem their loss to higher-paying agencies, some citizens claimed the city misused funds to build the Pacific Avenue Athletic Complex last year. Consequently, Wilkinson announced an independent audit into the allegations. The auditor, a bond counsel and the city’s longtime bond attorney said that they found no irregularities or illegalities in the city’s finances.
However, the individuals accusing the city weren’t satisfied because the audit did not specifically focus on the PAAC and other reasons and are still seeking answers.
After coming to a consensus, police and city staff have narrowed down a list of pay plan options, and the council is set to continue the discussions next year. The city is also considering raises for all employees. Any new play plan would take effect the next budget year which starts July 1.
The city’s law enforcement is facing challenges, but it also entered into great partnerships, Wilkinson said. AWC is working on a law enforcement academy, and Yuma is part of a joint effort including Yuma County and other cities. It will open in the spring and should cut costs to the Police Department, which currently sends newly hired officers out of town for training.
“It will help everybody in the community,” Wilkinson said.
Another challenge faced by the city are the deteriorating condition of roads. In response, a citizens initiative asked Yuma voters to decide whether they wanted to pay an additional half-cent sales tax to fix city roads. The levy would have raised about $10 million annually, enough to fix 20 miles of city roads per year. Voters defeated the initiative, dubbed Proposition 411.
“That was disappointing. Citizens had put that together,” Wilkinson said. “There is no funding to keep up the roads. It will be a huge challenge for the city. We will continue to do the best we can, but there’s no money to maintain roads.”
The city also stepped in after a contract dispute led to Charter Communications/Spectrum to drop Northwest Broadcasting stations KYMA, KSWT and Estrella TV programming from the air in Yuma in February. Yuma and the other cities filed a FCC complaint against Charter/Spectrum, which denied any wrongdoing. Spectrum reached an agreement with Northwest in June and the stations returned to the air.
In another dispute, the regional Salvation Army announced that it would be dropping the Boys and Girls Club affiliation at the end of this year and become a multi-generational Red Shield community center. Some Yuma donors that helped raise $1.7 million, including $1.2 million for the construction of a new building and the renovation of the existing building, said they felt “duped” by the organization. The city, which donated the building to the Salvation Army, filed a lawsuit against the organization.
In other ongoing projects, the city began the process of updating development fees and the Mesa del Sol Property Owners Association submitted a formal letter requesting annexation. At this point the group is only exploring the option; the formal letter triggers the information-gathering process. In case the annexation goes through, the city has been looking into buying Far West Water and Sewer.
Wilkinson is optimistic about the new year. “The council is well represented, with a tremendous council that does a great job with moving the community forward,” he said. “The outlook is very bright for our city.”