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News for Southeastern Arizona, provided by the University of Arizona School of Journalism

Locals anticipate Tombstone’s demise

Visitors wait outside the O.K. Corral in anticipation for the gunfight show on Jan. 27,in Tombstone.  The O.K. Corral re-enacts the famous gunfight that made the town famous.  (Photo by: Kayla Belcher/ Arizona Sonora News)

After years of being an also-ran on True West Magazine’s Top 10 True Western Towns, Tombstone finally made the list. It’s No. 9.

For many people who live and visit this town, it could seem as good news set atop the bad: They believe the town is slowly dying.

It’s high noon on a Saturday and the streets are nearly bare — it’s a senior citizens’ paradise. Only service dogs and retirees stroll along the broken wooden sidewalks. Novelty cowboy gear, old timey photo shops, and run-down bars line the streets.

Coming around the corner from Fremont Street onto Allen Street, visitors are sent back to the Wild West of the 1800s. Empty dirt roads, stagecoaches, and makeshift signs make up the landscape of the town. Locals and costumed street actors mix in their western attire.

The cheap movie set environment evokes an eerie demise.

The four main attractions in Tombstone consist of two historical re-enactment gunfight shows, The Vigilant Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Saloon Theater Historic Gunfight show, a comedy show called The Gunfight Palace, and a Good Enough Underground Mine Tour. The O.K. Corral is the official site of the famous gunfight re-enacted in the 1993 movie Tombstone.

The January edition that includes Tombstone on the Top 10 True Western Towns of 2018. (True West Magazine)

Since 1963, Robert Love and his sister have been the owners of the O.K. Corral and Tombstone Epitaph, despite not living in Tombstone for over a decade. Although this city is visually and economically depleting, Love doesn’t see it that way.  

“As long as the economy continues to improve, more people will want to travel,” Love said. “The 25th anniversary celebration of the movie Tombstone should bring in a lot of revenue.”

In the last two years, workers say attendance is down, although Love says profits are up. He said last year’s appearances of actor Val Kilmer, who played the famous cowboy Doc Holliday in the movie, also boosted the town.

Despite Love’s positive outlook on his tourist attraction, other Tombstone locals and shop owners disagree.

With first having no intention of staying, retired couple Robin and Jericho Petham came to Tombstone for a weekend trip three years ago. Now, they are co-owners and managers of three store fronts: U Scream 4 Ice Cream, Coffee Shop, and a vacant space that comprise more than half of the Fifth Street block.

“If 15 years from now someone told me that Tombstone was gone, I would believe it,” Robin Petham said.

Allen Street remains empty mid afternoon on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018 in Tombstone, Ariz. The city is currently is in an off tourism season. (Photo by: Kayla Belcher/ Arizona Sonora News)

The Pethams are just one of many business owners who have seen a dramatic decline in the town’s traffic. According to multiple store owners and locals, Tombstone receives fewer than 50 visitors a week in the off-season. Making ends meet is difficult.

“I’m not leaving anytime soon, but it has been harder to put food in my daughter’s mouth,” O.K. Corral performer Ian Messenger said.  

The dread of yelling to empty streets is just one of the reasons Messenger patiently awaits the busy season.

From February to early June, Tombstone has around 1,000 visitors from all over the world on any given week. These five months are the only prosperous time, and shop owners rely heavily on this period of income.

Regardless of Love’s and True West’s positive outlook on the city, overall income and visitation rates aren’t satisfying locals.

According to Cochise College Chief Economist Robert Carreira, transaction privilege tax, more commonly known as sales tax, is the main source of revenue.

“Tombstone’s revenue for Fiscal Year 2017 was down 4.4 percent from 2012,” Carreira said.

Bridget Hart, a Tombstone native, sees a decline in the city. She works at Outlaw T’s Books & More, a novelty shop off of Allen Street. Hart is unhappy with the town’s current decaying state, but she has no intentions of leaving.

“Tombstone may not attract tourists in the future, but it will always be the small town I live in,” Hart said.

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

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