Sonoran Desert Retreat Center & Residencies

International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA)

Funding Received: 2013
Ajo, AZ
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
August 9, 2013

Update and Reflection

Despite the very hot weather (imagine most days up toward 110), our building maintenance and repair apprentices are working hard on our Sonoran Desert Retreat Center sleeping rooms. Doing the construction as on-the-job training makes for a slow process--our first six rooms won't come on line until next March. But the great benefit is that most of the construction dollars stay here in Ajo and circulate, creating local economic benefit (the multiplier effect). At the same time, our town is gaining more skilled maintenance and repair workers to help all of us deal with our older homes (most of the homes here were built before 1950. Besides these benefits, the slower pace gives ISDA time to raise more programming funds and learn how to operate a retreat center.

Because ISDA is a tri-national organization, our goal is to strengthen the tri-cultural presence in Ajo. We will do that through the artist residency program to be hosted at the new retreat center. But we are also working to shift this balance in our town plaza -- only a block to the east. ISDA owns the plaza and one of the shops in its newly renovated commercial space: Art Stop / Print Shop. In the last month, we have created a sales niche for Tohono O'odham art including quite a few original paintings and prints and baskets by regionally known O'odham artists.

Our Spanish-style arcaded plaza with a central park is Ajo's town center -- we are working to restore its vibrancy. This month the plaza business owners got together and started a new event: Under the Arches. The last Friday evening of the month, musicians and other performers are invited to be under the arches, fun activities are provided for kids, and businesses sponsor a game for adults to encourage them to visit all the shops. This month it was a poker walk--people picked up a card at each business and the best hand won a fabulous gift basket at the end of the evening. This month it will be a dice walk with prizes for the best and worst set of dice throws. It happened that the first Under the Arches event was on the hottest day of the year so far -- still more than 100 people came out and had a good time. And, we hope, discovered more of our local plaza businesses in the process.

Recent Wins

Our big wins this last month are in the MEDIA category. To set the context, we are located at the intersection of three nations -- close to the US/Mexico border and the border of the Tohono O'odham Nation. Our county shares the longest border with Mexico of any county in the United States and we are a "hot spot" for illegal migration. So, we are accustomed to seeing stories in the national press claiming that the Ajo area and northern Mexico are a "war zone" where to visit means putting your life at risk. The same press can never be reached to experience all the positive community events here in Ajo, across the border in Sonoyta, Mexico, or on the Tohono O'odham Nation. Or to learn that visiting our communities is safer than visiting Tucson, Phoenix, or practically any other urban center.

In the last two weeks, our community was twice featured by Arizona Public Media on the Arizona Illustrated Nature show. ISDA is a member of the Ajo Regional Food Partnership featured on the shows, working to convert our "food desert" to a "food oasis." The gardens at our retreat center are among those featured on the shows.

So check out these stories:

One of our town plaza renovation projects (the most beautiful historic renovation project in town so far) also caught regional newspaper coverage:


There must be an insight to be had from our recent media coverage! What is it? For rural organizations, this success emphasizes the necessity of being comprehensive. In cities, there are plenty of nonprofits to share the work, so specialization and collaboration works. Here in rural America, there are few nonprofits. So if the work is going to get done at all, each of us must be quite broad and then build and treasure collaboration, make it work.