While Ajo is part of Pima County, residents of the former mining town live closer to the beaches of Mexico than Tucson or Phoenix. During the summer months, when many retirees leave for cooler climates, the population hovers around 3,500. It’s a sharp decline from the 10,000 or so who once called Ajo home in the 1980s before a nearby copper mine shut down.
In recent years, the community has taken steps to lure new residents. They transformed a former high school into a housing and studio space for artists. Another closed school became the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center.
“The goal was really, one, to meet an affordable housing need; two, to save a really important building; and three, to get a bunch of creatives together in one place. What we’ve seen historically is when you get a critical mass of creatives all together cool things happen. People open coffee shops and galleries,” Aaron Cooper said. Cooper is with the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, a group that works to improve the economy and celebrate the culture of the region.
Leaders in Ajo are attempting to improve the areas curb appeal. It’s location along State Route 85 puts it on the way to Puerto Peñasco, or Rocky Point, in Sonora, Mexico, for vehicles coming from Phoenix. Cooper would like to see more of these travelers stop and stay a while.
“We’re working with our businesses on saying, ‘How do you put your best foot forward, how do you put your message out there more effectively?’ so someone passing through can better understand the resources that are here and why they might be interested for stopping longer than just to get Mexican insurance,” Cooper said.