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Somerton looks forward to the future as it celebrates the past
SOMERTON — For most of Somerton's first 100 years, the number of its residents hovered at or below 4,000.
Then from 2000 to 2010, Somerton's population doubled.
Somerton still numbers less than 15,000 people, but the surge is taken by some residents as a sign that their community is one in transition, growing from its small-town agricultural roots into a more economically diverse city.
In the years ahead, they predict, Somerton will continue to be a bedroom community – a place where people prefer to live even if their jobs are in Yuma or San Luis – but will see its economic base expand to include new types of business and industry.
At the same time, they hope progress doesn't come at the expense of Somerton's small-town atmosphere, that sense of community they long ago came to appreciate.
Somerton, settled by agricultural families in the waning years of the 19th century, was founded in 1898 and then incorporated in 1918 – milestones that are being marked today in the city's Greater Days celebration.
Located amid prime agricultural land, Somerton attracted migrant farmworkers, among whom were Filipino families that until recent decades represented a sizable segment of Somerton's population.
Agustin Tumbaga, a former Somerton mayor whose father had immigrated from the Philippines, recalls growing up in an agricultural camp where Filipino families lived and mingled, holding frequent potlucks. Back then, he said, Somerton's population would have been 4,000, if that.
“It was so small everyone knew everyone,” said Tumbaga.
Tumbaga, today a builder, says he appreciates the fact that Somerton – and, by extension, its government – is still small enough that when he goes to City Hall to get the permits he needs for a project, he can avoid the red tape he would face in bigger cities.
“You get more of a person-to-person feel. You can easily walk in and talk to the city manager and then go talk to the building official.” That's important, he said, for a person who is in business, in which “time is money.”
Still, Tumbaga believes that Somerton is at a key moment for growth and development, not withstanding the weakened economy.
That's because its population still falls below 15,000 – the 2011 census put it at 14,287 – and that means development projects in the city can still qualify for government financing at favorable terms that are not available to bigger cities.
Tumbaga believes developers will take advantage of the window of opportunity, resulting in new commercial and residential development ahead of a future census that shows the 15,000 mark having been eclipsed.
“I really do foresee dramatic change in the next eight years,” Tumbaga said.
He predicts that growth will lead to more retail and restaurant chains setting up shop in Somerton. Residents have clamored for those and a major grocery store for years, he said.
Owing to housing costs that are among the lowest in the region, Tumbaga said, Somerton already is attracting new families, among them those with breadwinners stationed at or employed at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.
Apart from housing prices, another reason for the attraction is Somerton's small-town feel, said Robby Rodriguez, a Yuma native who moved to Somerton with his family in 2001 after joining the Somerton/Cocopah Fire Department.
“It's a place where you can walk everywhere. You can walk to the grocery story or to visit a friend.”
For Rodriguez as a firefighter, answering a call for assistance at a resident's home feels like going to the home of a family member in a time of need. And, he said, that sentiment prevails among everyone in Somerton: “They all chip in when it's time to help out.”
“Neighbors are also friends,” said former Somerton resident Luis Heredia. “The degrees of separation in Somerton are very close, so you have the ability to grow up everyday with someone who is asking you about your well-being. You don't get that in larger communities.”
Heredia lived in Somerton from birth until 2008 and served on the city's elementary school board for eight years. While now residing in Gilbert, Ariz., he returns monthly to Somerton to visit friends and family.
Even as it holds on to its agricultural tradition, Heredia sees Somerton developing a strong commercial sector while continuing to serve as a bedroom community for people who have jobs elsewhere, among them those in professional classes and federal agencies.
”I think what you really have in a place like Somerton is a community that stands strong in both language and community. It's a community where you really have a solid mix of people.”
If anyone has seen Somerton's evolution, it's Evelyn Gloria, who, having been born there in 1922, may be the city's resident of longest standing.
On one hand, she regrets seeing homes spring up where crops once grew. But for most part, she said, progress has been good for Somerton.
“It's still a peaceful town. It's clean, the streets are clean. The policemen do a good job, and so do the other city employees.”