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Downtown Works to Recapture Past

Our View: Downtown Litchfield Park Recapturing Past 

Originally published in the Southwest Valley Arizona Republic on May 30, 2012

Reprinted with permission of the Arizona Republic

It’s not hard to find the downtown of a city when its only 3.3 square miles. What you’ll discover in the heart of Litchfield Park, however, is a treasure harkening back to a quaint town square in a well-defined, comfortable community.

The area has seen its highs and lows over the years, but in the past decade has re-established itself as a destination.

Restauranteur and city councilman Peter Mahoney moved to Litchfield Park in 1972. For the 12-year-old, downtown became the gathering spot for friends and neighbors. They’d pick up the mail at the post office (since there was no home delivery), shop at the local grocer and grab a bite at the soda fountain in the neighborhood drug store.

“It was a small, little village in the middle of nowhere,” Mahoney said. “A whole different style of living.”

At that time, the nearest towns — Avondale and Goodyear — were three to four miles away. Today, development has gobbled up vacant land and the communities abut. But you can always tell when you reach Litchfield Park — the mature trees, well-kept streets and genteel residents are an oasis in a sea of development.

In many ways, Litchfield Park benefits from its land-locked city boundaries. The limitations forced leaders to carefully consider how they want downtown to reflect the city.

The main square is home to a green space for community gatherings such as arts festivals and concerts. Local shops and eateries dot the small downtown business district. Nearby, a library and recreation center offer services to area residents.

“What we have is a unique setting with an ambiance that visitors won’t soon forget,” City Manager Darryl Crossmann said. Locally-operated restaurants and retailers long have occupied the city’s downtown strip center, which Crossman proudly calls “the strip that ‘breaks the chains.’”

Mahoney opened his Old Pueblo Cafe downtown about 10 years ago. At the time, he said, many of the retailers from his youth had closed and the business area was desolate. Since he moved in, other entrepreneurs have joined him, bringing a renewed energy to the original town site.

Locals now ride bikes or walk to have Mexican food, imbibe in a beer or grab a plate of sushi downtown. Soon, they’ll have another option. Mahoney is renovating space to create The Corner Cafe, an old-fashioned American diner reminiscent of the drugstore counter of his youth. It's expected to open this summer and will feature historic photos evocative of early Litchfield Park.

Mayor Tom Schoaf hopes such expansion continues.

“We want to move ahead with a new city hall complex that will add commercial but along the same lines that we already have — small business, retail and offices,” he said.

The city hall project has been on hold because of the economy but the city continues to work with the developer on the concept and Crossman hopes to see it break ground this year.

“It will look like Litchfield Park, not a new, modern building,” he said. “The architecture of Litchfield Park is based on tradition and history.”

A major player in that history also happens to be the city’s prominent employer Wigwam Resort. Opening in 1918 as guest housing for visiting Goodyear Tire executives from Ohio, the resort was expanded and opened to the public in 1929.

The resort, which was renovated last year, sits in the heart of the city and has a synergy with its neighboring businesses.

“The Wigwam has been a great partner to the area’s local businesses,” Mahoney said, adding that 15 to 20 percent of Old Pueblo’s sales come from visitors staying at the resort. “When they do well, we do well.”

The $7 million Wigwam renovation has created a buzz among out-of-town and local visitors, Crossman said. “I’m hearing nothing but rave reviews and that benefits our local restaurants and retailers.”

Next on the city’s plate is a pedestrian underpass beneath Litchfield Road, linking downtown to commercial sites on the western side of town. Wide enough for two golf carts to travel side by side, the pathway will allow resort visitors and residents to expand their shopping and dining experience.

Mahoney welcomes more options for diners and shoppers to expose more individuals to downtown.

“This area has the potential to be a great destination.”And it’s all nestled in a city of only 3.3 square miles.