Gilbert hopes tourists flock to Riparian park - East Valley Tribune: News

Gilbert hopes tourists flock to Riparian park

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Posted: Thursday, April 3, 2008 12:07 am | Updated: 11:37 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Gilbert officials are looking to birdwatchers to help the town carve a niche in Arizona's lucrative ecotourism market.

SLIDESHOW: See more images from Gilbert's Riparian Preserve

Gilbert officials are looking to birdwatchers to help the town carve a niche in Arizona's lucrative ecotourism market.

SLIDESHOW: See more images from Gilbert's Riparian Preserve

Recently, the Town Council agreed to spend $10,000 on a hydrology study at a new riparian area under construction off Higley Road, between Queen Creek and Ocotillo roads. [CORRECTION: In the previous version it was incorrectly stated that the Town Council agreed to spend $10,000 on a hydrology study to determine how to further develop Gilbert's Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch.]

If the study, expected to begin by year's end, shows the facility can maintain its performance with smaller ponds, the town can free up space on the north side of the park to build an educational facility to "capitalize on the tourism aspect" of the preserve, said Councilwoman Linda Abbott, who plans to lobby hard for such a project in coming years.

Gilbert was turned down recently by the Arizona Water Institute for a grant that would have helped fund the study, but that's not stopping Abbott. Town staff is now working with researchers at the University of Arizona on a new grant proposal to fund the study.

"We did not get the (first) grant, but I am not letting go on the concept," she said. "I'm a pretty tenacious person."

She pointed out that the educational facility, though not planned or even specifically defined, is the first step to "capitalize on the tourism aspect" of the preserve.

Town officials don't really know what the facility would consist of, though it would be designed to host classes from area schools, including the state's universities and community colleges.

"That would be the first element, to me," Abbott said, "because that's what's sorely missed at our current riparian site."

Ultimately, the idea is to make the preserve, already a popular place among local birdwatchers, a destination for birders from all over the country.

Anne Wright visits the preserve a few days each week before commuting back to her Casa Grande home. "I wish we had something like this in Casa Grande," she said.

She comes with her friend, Sharon Ewing-Rash of Mesa, to watch the birds and enjoy a brief getaway.

"We're not the avid birdwatcher type," Ewing-Rash said. "Though there are a lot of those out here."

Gilbert photographer Rick Furmanek takes his cameras to the preserve at least three times a week to stake out nesting areas or the waterline.

Furmanek said the preserve already attracts birders from all over. So it's no surprise to him that someone is looking to cash in on that.

"There's a whole lot of potential out here," he said. "It's a whole menagerie of birds here."

The idea of cashing in on birdwatchers has some merit, experts say.

Arizona already has a strong ecotourism market because of its existing natural resources, said Kathy Andereck, a professor at Arizona State University who teaches classes in recreation and tourism management.

"The birding market is just getting to be really big," she said. "And ecotourism in general is a niche in which people tend to spend quite a bit of money."

And the number of birdwatchers is continuing to grow.

"The demographic that is attracted to birding is increasing because the baby boomers are moving into that group," she said.

Tom Wood runs the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory in Bisbee, southeast of Tucson. The area around the observatory attracts thousands of birders each year who come to see Mexican species only found in that area as well as migratory birds just traveling through.

Serious birders have a list of birds he or she has yet to spot, and they'll only find some of those birds in Arizona, he said.

"It's kind of a novelty factor," Wood said. "They're always looking for new birds, it's almost like a game - like being a stamp collector or a coin collector."

In fact, only two states have more bird species than Arizona - Texas and California.

"And that's because they have coastlines," said Cathy Wise, education programs coordinator for Audubon Arizona.

But an educational facility at a Gilbert's preserve won't necessarily make a difference in attracting serious birders to Gilbert, experts say.

The observatory in Bisbee is more an organization than a facility, Wood said. The organization has a small viewing station, but no significant museums or classroom spaces.

Mainly, birders are looking for birds they've never seen before. If a preserve attracts the right birds, it will attract birders. No matter what, Wise said.

"And you will have them go to great lengths to see that species that they're missing on their life list or their year list," she said. "Birdwatchers are known to be very tenacious."

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