IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Fueling big changes for a small town

Safford, Ariz., is bracing for a growth spurt fueled by the opening of the first copper mine in the United States in three decades.
/ Source: CNBC

Safford, Ariz., is bracing for a growth spurt fueled by the opening of the first copper mine in the United States in three decades.

This sleepy town — where street lights turn green for drivers who aren't in any rush and a few "For Rent" signs sit in front along Main Street — was founded way back in 1874. Today, it's bracing for a rebirth.

"The town is ready to grow just on the verge of a nice growth pattern," says Safford native Mayor Green.

That's because Phelps Dodge Corp., one of the world's leading producers of copper, is getting bigger and has opened the first new copper mine in the United States in 30 years. The mine will not be up and running until 2008, but Mayor Green is already feeling the winds of change.

“New roads are being put in, the swimming pool is going in, it's exciting for me,” says Mayor Green.

So far the town's WalMart got super-sized and is now one of the biggest in the state. Home Depot's moved in, and coffee shops on Main Street and businesses all over town are raking in record sales.

It's the growth in the mining industry that's fueling the boom in Safford. There's an estimated 540 million pounds of copper in Safford, and it's going to take 500 people — when the mine is fully operational — to get that metal out of the ground.

The Safford mine has been in the works for more than a decade. Tim Snyder of Phelps Dodge says it should come on line this fall, just in time to feed the voracious appetite for copper, from countries a world away.

“We believe that China and that part of the world are going through our equivalent of the industrial revolution,” said Snyder

This revolution is powered by China's breakneck growth — expected to reach 10 percent this year, and by a massive buildout for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This is fueling the growth halfway around the world and changing the face of Safford. The town's population of 9,600 is projected to double in the next five years.

But along with the growth come pains. Home prices are rising as fast as in hubs like Phoenix, making housing less affordable for residents, and construction can’t keep up.

“There's a big demand and we're going to be short of supplies,” says Gary Curtis, a Safford Realtor.

Some, like Mayor Green, also worry that Safford's small-town feel is fading.

"You'd know everyone, all the shopkeepers, people who own the stores. It was just a small-town atmosphere years ago. Today it's changing into a metropolitan atmosphere."

Safford is indeed feeling the winds of change from a world away ... right here on Main Street.