SAN LUIS, Ariz. – Russ Jones can recall a case in the 1970s of a shoplifter being caught in the act at a store here. San Luis didn’t have a police force back then, so the thief had to be handcuffed to the building until a sheriff’s deputy could come from Yuma to arrest him.
For Jones, then and now a customs broker in San Luis, as well as other merchants and residents, the incident pointed to the need for the community to incorporate as a city that could provide law enforcement and other needed services.
They formed a group that began collecting petition signatures to ask the county Board of Supervisors to allow them to incorporate. Supervisors accepted the petitions, giving the go-ahead to create a City Hall to govern the community of fewer than 2,000 residents nestled in the southwestern corner of the county, next to Mexico.
It was in that era that Tony Reyes, a resident of San Luis since before incorporation, decided to run for the city council.
“I was elected to the council for the first time in 1982, and I think I was elected with only 53 votes,” says Reyes, today a county supervisor. “That shows how small the the city was. It was a different time.”
Today, as it marks the 34th anniversary of its incorporation, San Luis is the second-largest city in the county, with more than 26,000 residents, according to the latest Census figures.
Residents have not only a police force, but a fire department and all the other public services their predecessors had clamored for, like paved streets and sewer service.
At the time of incorporation, the only paved street in San Luis was Main Street, which, then as now, was a leg of U.S. Highway 95.
Residents had all been hooked up to septic tanks, but by the late 1970s or early 1980s the county had put a moratorium on any new tanks for fear saturation could lead to groundwater contamination, Jones recalled.
He and Reyes said one reason for incorporating was to be able to collect a city sales tax to fund the services residents wanted. As it was, a state sales tax was being applied on the sales merchants were making primarily to shoppers coming from San Luis Rio Colorado, Son., but little of the revenue was coming back to the Arizona border community, they said.
“We saw that hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue were being collected from taxes on sales to shoppers from Mexico,” said Reyes. “The only way (to keep the money in San Luis) was to become a city.”
Apart from sales tax revenue, the city was able to secure state and federal grants that enabled it to pave streets and provide for other services. By the mid- to late 1980s, many of the residential streets had been paved, the city had purchased the private water company that had supplied San Luis, and a new sewer treatment plant had gone on line.
In the early 1980s, San Luis had four residential subdivisions – Plaza 1 and 2, Los Portales and Escondido Beach – but the population swelled in the following decades as the Comite de Bienestar, a nonprofit housing cooperative, developed new neighborhoods on tracts of state land it purchased on the east side of the city.
The Comite, of which Reyes has served as executive director since the 1980s, was made up of primarily farmworker families who pooled their funds to be able to purchase and develop the land into the subdivisions where they built their homes.
Both he and Jones credit Comite with being a key factor in the city’s growth through the late 1980s, 1990s and into the 21st century, although other developers came to the city in the later years.
San Luis grew through what Reyes describes as “dual migration,” with some new residents being recent immigrants from Mexico and others coming from larger cities like Phoenix or Los Angeles in search of a slower pace.
The recession has slowed development in recent years, and Reyes doubts the city will ever again experience the 15 to 20 percent annual growth rates seen in the 1980s and ‘90s. Within five or so years, he predicts, growth could return to 6 or 7 percent.
Jones, a former state legislator, likewise expects San Luis to continue growing, but he believes that for it to prosper in the future, residents need to arrive at a consensus as to the city’s identity.
An identity, he says, will help the city set new goals for itself, among them diversifying its economy. The city’s continuing dependence on consumer sales to Mexican shoppers, he said, leaves it at the mercy of the “ebb and flow” of Mexico’s economy.
Jones believes San Luis residents and their elected leaders are up to the demands of the future.
While some outsiders see recurring recall efforts and highly charged electoral campaigns in San Luis as signs of “small-town politics”, Jones believes residents are simply showing they take an active role in their community. For one thing, he said, voter turnout in San Luis is higher than in many other communities.
“I would say that the democratic process is very robust. People are really involved in it, and they are not complacent at all.”