30 years in the making: Oro Valley Parks and Recreation

Naranja splash pad grand opening 2024.jpg

By Dave Perry, for the Town of Oro Valley

On an autumn day in 2000, Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis stood outside the Pima County Courthouse, hoping not to see developer Conley Wolfswinkel.

Loomis and others feared the agitated Wolfswinkel would outbid them at an Arizona State Land Department auction of 173 acres at Naranja Town Site, then an idled industrial pit between Naranja Drive and Tangerine Road.

Wolfswinkel didn’t show. Oro Valley was the lone bidder, paying $2.58 million for acreage that, coupled with ground along the Copper Creek development, completed the 213-acre Naranja Town Site rectangle.

“We had the idea ... it could become a regional park,” Loomis remembered.

It’s taken just short of 25 years to get there. A $20 million investment in Naranja Park was celebrated by thousands at a May 2024 grand opening.

Before this near-completion of Naranja, the town formed task forces, created studies and plans, and proposed robust bond issues of $48 million in 2008, and $17 million in 2017. Voters soundly rejected both bond questions. Progress was halting, at best, always under the shadow of money, its relative availability, and with competing recreational interests advocating for their uses.

Satish Hiremath, DDS, was elected mayor in 2010. Oro Valley adopted a “pay as you go” strategy at Naranja, making improvements when cash became available. “We did not want to put the council, our residents, and future residents in more debt,” Hiremath said.

Naranja, “dormant for more than a decade,” got its first formal recreational use from the Sonoran Desert Flyers, who asked Oro Valley for a place to fly radio-controlled aircraft. The park could accommodate the flyers at “minimal expense,” Hiremath said.

In 2012, after what The Arizona Daily Star described as “two years of wrangling,” the 35-acre Oro Valley Archery Range opened at Naranja’s south end. It was built with donations, and a $15,000 grant from Arizona Game and Fish. It flourished. “It’s amazing how many archers there are in the country,” Hiremath said.

The first big investments at Naranja came in 2014, when the town installed infrastructure, two dog parks, and two multi-use fields, the latter to serve the community and to attract Major League Soccer teams for winter training. Hiremath remembered the day he and the council posed with huge rolls of sod. “I pushed, and the sod pushed back,” he said.

Hiremath, familiar with pushback, always argued the creation of quality recreational amenities could draw visitors who stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, and buy things, all the while paying sales tax to Oro Valley so it can support public safety, good roads ... and parks.

In December 2014, Hiremath and a one-vote majority of the town council decided to spend $1 million to purchase the El Conquistador Country Club, with 45 holes of golf, 31 tennis courts, two swimming pools, and other facilities. To operate those golf courses and the community center, that same night that council majority added a half-cent sales tax on purchases.

“For the first time, parents did not have to drive their kids outside the community of Oro Valley to attend a summer camp,” said Hiremath, himself an Oro Valley parent. About 1,000 kids were enrolled that first summer.

Joe Winfield was elected mayor of Oro Valley in 2018. In 2020, during the pandemic, the Naranja Park playground opened to the community’s children. Today, young ones flock to the mini zip line, climb the adventure tower and rock walls, and play in the sand and on the swings.

“I like to think of our parks as the social arenas,” Winfield said. In modern life, “there’s very little interaction” with neighbors and fellow residents, he said. Parks and recreation give people “this opportunity, not only with our family and friends, but with the community at-large,” for “social interaction, and fellowship, and a community. They’re truly gathering areas.”

In September 2021, the current town council voted 5-2 to issue $25 million in bonds for parks and recreation. It completed replacement of decades-old irrigation systems at the town’s two 36-hole golf courses along La Canada, repaired tennis courts, and added pickleball courts. And it dedicated proceeds toward Naranja.

With money from bonds, the town has added two sports fields at Naranja, bringing the total to six. The airstrip was relocated. And Naranja now has a big, free, shaded splash pad, four pickleball courts, an immediately popular skate park, and equally valued bicycle pump track. Restrooms, shade structures, a multi-use path, lighting and a road have been built. Trees and shrubs have been planted. A regional park has taken shape.

“From its humble beginnings as a gravel pit to the cherished park it has become today, the journey of Naranja Park over the years has been remarkable,” said Winfield, a retired landscape architect. “It’s incredibly gratifying to have been a small part” of Oro Valley’s greater investment in parks, trails, paths, courses and courts.

Bonds must be repaid. Revenue from the 2014-instituted half-cent sales tax has grown. Now, it's being used to pay for that $25 million parks and recreation issue.

“The half-cent was the icing on the cake,” Hiremath said. “I felt very comfortable, I could live with that decision, because it had a generational effect.”

Hiremath is “thankful the Winfield administration has decided that parks and recreation are important. They could have easily said ‘enough is enough, leave it as it is.’ It goes back to stepping stones. ... No administration can do anything without the prior administration’s involvement.

“It’s about recognizing assets you currently have, and building on top of those assets,” Hiremath said.

Thirty years ago, no parks

Oro Valley had no parks in 1990, according to historian Jim Williams. And, Loomis said, “there was never really a plan, in the early days, for the town to ever have parks.”

Dennis Weaver Park, north of Calle Concordia and within the town limits, was operated by Pima County.

“The county wanted to get rid of it because of the cost,” Loomis said. “It was basically turned over to the town.” Oro Valley assumed responsibility, and renamed the park for town founding father James D. Kriegh on April 18, 2001.

Since then, Oro Valley has poured millions of dollars into fields, paths, facilities, and infrastructure, to include $5 million to make the Oro Valley Aquatic Center a nationally attractive facility.

Loomis can trace his own step into Oro Valley politics to the successful delay of a planned, 424-unit apartment complex two doors from his Lambert Lane home. Oro Valley eventually acquired that 30-acre parcel; today, it is Cañada del Oro Riverfront Park, home to sports fields, play areas and courts.

New recreational facility steppingstones are in place. In 2022, with $1.8 million from neighbors, revenue from the sale of a cut-out parcel for an apartment community, and $880,000 of town money, Oro Valley purchased 202 acres of the closed Golf Club at Vistoso, and created the Vistoso Trails Nature Preserve.

“It’s an incredible asset to our community that will be preserved in perpetuity,” Winfield said.

It is a desert in the rough. The town council has committed $2 million beginning July 1 to begin converting the closed golf course into a Sonoran Desert preserve. And, once more, Oro Valley is embarking on a new path for its parks and recreation future.

Naranja skate park grand opening 2024.jpg
“From its humble beginnings as a gravel pit to the cherished park it has become today, the journey of Naranja Park over the years has been remarkable,” said Winfield.

Naranja splash pad grand opening 2024.jpg
A $20 million investment in Naranja Park was celebrated by thousands at a May 2024 grand opening.