Yuma: A River Runs to It

From Arizona’s earliest beginnings, Yuma has always been about ‘location, location, location’

Situated at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers, in the very southwestern corner of the state, the contours of those rivers have not only shaped Yuma’s geography, but also its destiny.

Over the centuries, as the area became more populated, changes—natural and manmade—to the twin rivers have rendered them almost unrecognizable from what they once must have looked like. But what hasn’t altered a bit is the importance those waterways still hold for the life and well being of Yuma.

Indeed, the aptly named Yuma Crossing exploits a natural narrowing of the Colorado River, making it one of the most serviceable transportation routes to and from California and Mexico. It was especially important at the time of Yuma’s earliest settlement by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, and afterward as well, for centuries of trade and transportation.

And while the rivers were lifelines for the European settlers, the riverbanks and low marshlands along them were already home to several Native American tribes that had occupied the region for centuries before the Spanish arrived.

A city takes shape

Yuma’s growth was slow and organic for a time, but the pace accelerated as it began to experience the surge of Americans heading westward in the early- to mid-1800s. That’s when countless throngs of immigrants crossed by ferry from Yuma on their way to the California gold fields, during the gold rush of 1849. Later, in 1871, Yuma incorporated and became the county seat of Yuma County.

But with the vast Phoenix metropolis looming so largely 200 miles to the northeast, Yuma began to be regarded as some kind of remote outpost—a frontier settlement of sorts that travelers passed through on their way to somewhere else. And, for a long time, Yuma bore that stigma.

Today, however, all that has changed and the relatively small city of roughly 100,000 has come into its own as a true destination with a wealth of economic, social and cultural draws that can rival virtually any other small city in the Southwest.

Julie Engel, president and CEO of the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation, came to her job in 2007 and, since then, has witnessed some remarkable changes in the city. But what hasn’t changed, Engel emphasizes, are the “logistical advantages our location provides us here in Yuma.” Another constant, Engel says, is Yuma’s demographic status as a truly multicultural city.

“We’re about 55 percent Hispanic,” Engel notes, adding that Native Americans, blacks and Asians also help bolster the city’s increasing multiculturalism. “As a border community, I do want to say that we have a relatively ‘seamless’ border. Our relationship with our neighbors to the south is one that embraces them, and treats them as part of our community.”

Putting Yuma on the map

A big part of Yuma’s successful growth stems from its increasingly prominent role in U.S. agribusiness. The region’s growing climate has always proven favorable to farming, but especially since the development of more scientific farming equipment and techniques, the city can rightly claim its epithet of being the “winter vegetable capital of the world.”

“Due to technological advances and sheer environmental, ecological and economically driven initiatives,” Engel notes, “we are producing more ‘product’ on less land, and using less water than we did even 30 years ago.”

In fact, the region is the second largest in winter vegetable production in the United States, and No. 1 in production of several North American crops, namely leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and lettuce.

Vic Smith, who’s lived in Yuma for the past 40 years, has been a major proponent of the region’s agricultural identity and growth. His vast JV Farms enterprise focuses on growing the burgeoning crops of fresh, leafy green vegetables for a variety of shippers and processors that distribute throughout North America. Smith says the city has helped him and other growers to prosper.

“The city’s a good partner for us, recognizing how important agriculture is to the local economy,” he says. “They’ve helped us through various projects, including road infrastructure improvements, as well as through the cooling and distribution facilities necessary to the industry. They’ve been very supportive in that regard.”

But Smith adds the most important reason his farming business is based in Yuma is—once again—related to its location.

“Climate is the No. 1 factor, the thing that’s most important to our business—that and the water supply,” he notes. “As you can imagine, water in Arizona is extremely important, and the Yuma region has very strong water rights coming from the Colorado River. This desert climate is perhaps the most favorable area to grow the types of produce we grow—green leafy vegetables. We’re the primary winter supplier for these types of vegetables, probably for all the U.S. and Canada.”

Agribusiness isn’t the region’s only industry. As Engel explains, the county is home to several Fortune 500 companies that have located there primarily because of the ready access it provides to their markets. Johnson Control Battery Group is one, along with several suppliers supporting the auto industry in Mexico.

“What has attracted manufacturing to Yuma is our proximity to California,” she says. “We’re a one-day truck haul from Los Angeles, the epicenter of where a lot of industrial trade originates, so that makes us very attractive to certain industries.”

Parks and rec

It would be difficult to talk about Yuma’s progress toward becoming a bona-fide “progressive” Southwestern city without mentioning its recent efforts to re-affirm its centuries-old relationship with the Colorado River. The Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area is a massive reclamation project designed to restore an expansive, nearly 2,000-acre area bordering the Colorado River that had become overgrown and trash-ridden. The project originally sought to restore the setting to what it had once represented: the vital, symbiotic connection between Yuma and the river, which had historically been the city’s lifeblood and livelihood.

The project consists of a plethora of hiking and biking trails that traverse beautifully restored wetlands, and several parks and historic attractions, such as the famous 19th Century Yuma Territorial Prison.

In 2009, the Heritage Area’s master plan projects earned Yuma and its environs the prestigious Governor’s Arizona Preservation Award as the “most significant contribution toward the preservation of some aspect of the natural, cultural or aesthetic legacy of Arizona.”

Novel university concept

Another of Yuma’s most ambitious new undertakings is to bring a downtown college campus to the city, as a part of its major downtown redevelopment program. Under Yuma mayor Doug Nicholls’ leadership, city planners have developed a new vision to help the city meet a crucial need for Yuma’s economy and aid in the revitalization of its downtown. The plan would create an “umbrella” campus comprising at least three Arizona colleges and universities, in order to cultivate homegrown talent for the jobs of the 21st century and to attract industries that need that talent.

The downtown university concept, Nicholls says, came to him when he was in Phoenix and observed a building downtown that advertised both the University of Arizona and Arizona State University under the same roof.

“I thought, why don’t we build a university campus and invite some of the state colleges to co-locate on the campus? In other words, a university campus that’s comprised of multiple partners,” Nicholls says, adding that he and others felt it would create synergy with businesses and residents to create a vital urban hub—and a magnet for economic growth.

“One of the things that always comes up when we’re trying to attract companies to locate here is the city’s ability to have a strong university presence because of the symbiotic relationships that universities and industries nurture,” Nicholls explains.

Although the project is still in its conceptual stage, the city has already earmarked a 50-acre site for it just south of downtown, a former rail yard that’s been vacant for many decades.
One of the main goals for the project, Nicholls says, would be to try and help retain young, talented Yuma residents by offering them a local university and, later, help them transition into local technology, manufacturing or other career opportunities.

“So it becomes a vehicle for attracting talented people to our community as well as then keeping them here,” he explains. “A lot of people leave town for their education, and statistics indicate that once they leave for college, they’re not likely to return. So we’re trying to head that off by offering them a top-quality college or university experience right here in the city.”

Eclectic offerings

The downtown university plan joins so many other ambitious goals that Yuma is setting for its future as it continues to recast itself as a city—and a destination—unto itself. And there’s a lot to love about it.

“Yuma has a population that is ‘immigrant-based,’” says Engel. “And I don’t simply mean those from across the southern border, but from all over the U.S. Because of that, the city has an environment of collaboration and friendliness that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. It’s a city that endears itself to us because of that friendliness and livability.

“We really have an eclectic range of unique opportunities and they’re all right here, or very nearby. It’s a city that makes it very easy for all of us—residents and visitors—to do what we love to do.”

Story by Bruce Farr
Photography by Mark Lipczynski

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