The Native Is Restless

While most business types in these parts are trying their best to lure jobs and people to Phoenix, there's a new gadfly in the sticks south of here with a different goal: Drive a million people out of Arizona.

Actually, 48-year-old Mark Acuff is no newcomer. He's a third-generation Arizonan, born in Phoenix and raised in Casa Grande. (One of his grandfathers, Guy Acuff, was a member of the House in Arizona's Second Legislature.) He's a loyal Southwesterner who has spent most of his life in either New Mexico or Arizona. ("I don't recognize the boundary between the two states," he says.) Acuff recently returned to Casa Grande to start a little newspaper called the Pinal Pioneer, in which he often pokes dry, ornery fun at Phoenix and Tucson. He claims a circulation of 6,000 and growing.

From his garden spot of Casa Grande, he views the big cities as just "big brown clouds on the horizon." And he delights in the "utter hostility the people in Tucson have for Phoenix. From our viewpoint, we don't see any difference."

Acuff was born in St. Joseph's Hospital and recalls the big thrill of taking the streetcar downtown from his grandma's house near Thomas Road to see Phoenix's escalator. He also remembers the days before air conditioning on his family's twenty-acre bean farm that once stood just west of the state Capitol. To his mind, modern-day Phoenix has, for the first time, "reached an impasse of sorts."

"It's reached the size where people don't want to live there anymore, unless they can live in Scottsdale and afford a stretch limo and a chauffeur," Acuff says. Such discontent is new to Phoenix, Acuff contends, but he's not foolish enough to believe there's an organized no-growth movement afoot. Not yet, at least. "What I detect," he says, "is a large number of people looking around themselves at all this shit and just saying, `Stop! Enough already!' That doesn't mean they've articulated a philosophy about what to do about it."

Don't think of Acuff as just another knee-jerk liberal. He's as full of contradictions as Edward Abbey, whom he mourns as having "left a lot of unfinished work." Acuff's paper has come out for nuclear power (preferring it to the scars of coal mining) and against a Martin Luther King holiday. On the latter issue, Acuff suggests that "there are better ways to honor Dr. King, such as donations to funds for college education of minorities. Things which produce tangible results." He derides vehicle-emission testing as futile and makes fun of other papers for printing "scare stories" about toxic wastes.

To Acuff, the Maricopa County voters' overwhelming rejection of ValTrans just shows how much people distrust their leaders. "They are so far out of touch with the people that it's absolutely astounding," he says, and he predicts that widespread dissatisfaction may lead to a "a possible big change in the Phoenix council and mayor's office." On the other hand, he confesses that "there's no one leading the charge."

Stepping into this vacuum is Acuff's proposed Arizona Undevelopment Commission, which his paper claims "is directly in keeping with the thinking of most Arizonans, who are of the opinion that if anybody else moves here, somebody else ought to be required to leave." The commission's goal is for one million Arizonans to leave the state, perhaps to Orange County. He salutes a fellow maverick's idea that maybe Arizona could achieve this by banning air conditioning.

Acuff also founded the New Mexico Undevelopment Commission, which was headquartered at a place called Waldo--selected because it was on state maps despite the fact that nothing was there. The commission was more of an excuse for an annual picnic during which its members mooned Amtrak trains in an attempt to frighten away tourists.

Proposed headquarters of the Arizona Undevelopment Commission are at Sasco, an abandoned spot in the road between Tucson and Casa Grande. The site does have its advantages. It's near Red Rock, an I-10 interchange that, fortunately for future undevelopment commissioners, also is near an Amtrak line.

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy

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