Curley School

Realizing Big Dreams in a Small Town


A three-nation effort in Ajo, Arizona, led by Tracy Taft and the nonprofit International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA), brought together the Tohono O'odham Nation, the United States (represented by Pima County, Arizona), and Mexico, in service of an ambitious vision to transform the abandoned Curley School into a resource for cultural and financial renewal. ISDA faced two main hurdles on the path to that vision: making the process of planning and development affordable, including the cost of the PLACE team's assistance; and overcoming a difficult past that left the community disempowered.

PLACE’s Chris Velasco provided guidance to ISDA in the areas of artist market research, design, affordability and financing, providing for the unique needs of artists, and renovating historic properties for adaptive reuse. With PLACE's assistance in navigating complex regulations and applications, ISDA achieved nearly $11M in project funding from a variety of federal, state, and local sources, including Rural Housing and Economic Development Funds, Low-Income Housing and Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits, Community Development Block Grants, and the Federal Home Loan Bank's Affordable Housing Program (AHP).

With PLACE's guidance, ISDA was able to fully realize its vision.

  • to create live/work apartments for artist and artisan small businesses in an environmentally compatible manner
  • to develop a permanent cultural anchor for Ajo that is also a popular tourist destination
  • to provide a collaborative hub for intercultural and intergenerational activity

Although making a big splash around the country was not a goal, press and awards followed the innovative nature of the collaboration. The Curley School was awarded the National Trust/HUD Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation in 2008. The National Endowment for the Arts has referred to the Curley School as "A Cultural Bridge Across a Desert."


  1. Transforming a historic campus with an oppressive past into a place of healing and cultural renewal.
  2. Creating a destination, a reason to stop and stay over in a town of 4,000 people, rather than drive past on the highway.
  3. Supporting small businesses in a former company town that had laid largely dormant since the copper mine shut down.



ISDA purchased the closed campus and undertook initial planning, only to find that the surrounding community opposed the proposed redevelopment. In PLACE's experience, members of the public feel that they only have influence or control in opposition to a new development because they have traditionally been excluded from the development process. By opening up the process, expanding the number of participants to 450, and exploring dissent, the project concept was refined and strengthened, and community support shifted from strongly opposing to strongly supporting. 


Since opening the Curley School Artisan Apartments, ISDA has brought 5,600 new nonlocal visitors to Ajo each year, creating strong economic impact verified by the Center for Creative Community Development. The project has also created long-term financial stability for more than thirty small businesses. Its hub hosts well-attended intercultural and intergenerational events. The attention focused upon Ajo has brought higher attendance to festivals like the International Day of Peace celebration. By demonstrating how the collaborative transformation of a closed school in a small town could have three-nation cultural and financial impacts, the project transformed not only Ajo, but beliefs about what is possible elsewhere.


Combining several major financial sources into a coordinated whole is not easy. Traditional developments utilize narrowly-defined financing and steer away from complicated financial profiles and regulations. Reaching for a larger funding pool and tolerating complexity in that financial design is often necessary to fully realize a public-benefit project. If the project strives for ease of funding, financial simplicity, or bare minimum development and operating budgets, the long-term sustainability of the project could be jeopardized. With PLACE's help, ISDA maintained its ambitious vision and embraced a higher degree of complexity. 



PLACE facilitates a collaborative design process with genuine community participation. Ajo’s design was continually improved with input from historic preservation experts, architects and landscape architects, artists, lenders, and public and private stakeholders. PLACE’s process brings together financial feasibility, the programmatic needs of end users and the realities of preserving an historic treasure.


Chris Velasco from The PLACE Team put together the initial financial plan for the creation of Ajo’s visionary community. The complex, “layer cake” financing reflected the diversity of programmatic functions to be served by the project. More importantly, the initial pro forma we created for the project outlined both the vertical financial model — how the project could be built — with the horizontal financial model — how the project could be operated successfully over the long term. 


Such was the strength of commitment from Ajo and ISDA’s many strategic partners, that the project was successful competing against big-city projects around the state and the country. Chris Velasco facilitated dozens of meetings with potential project stakeholders as well as those in opposition to the project. A community-driven process was designed to empower authentic public participation in the development process, build ongoing support (both political and financial), incorporate dissent, and create a sense of community ownership for the project. 


The Curley School Artisan Apartments was one of the PLACE Team's first Technical Assistance projects, in which PLACE worked to add capacity to another nonprofit endeavor without having a long-term stewardship role in the outcome. PLACE entered into the relationship confident in the ability of ISDA to act as steward of the project long into the future. Chris Velasco's experience developing twenty-five prior projects suggested to him that ISDA should stretch to encompass some broader redevelopment goals and access a more creative pool of potential funding in order to optimize long-term financial sustainability. 


PLACE and ISDA were able to plan and create a project of similar scope and scale to those developed in larger metropolitan areas, and as a result, conferred a much higher per capita positive impact on the surrounding community than would have been possible in a more populous area. 


By laying careful groundwork with constituencies and mobilizing the broad and deep Ajo creative community, PLACE and ISDA reversed initial surrounding community opposition. It is often tempting to shortcut the community engagement process, particularly where past experience has left the public feeling helpless and negative and therefore more likely to challenge new efforts. That is precisely the context in which a robust community process is most important, and it must be given adequate time to work. 


Going into the Technical Assistance relationship with ISDA, the PLACE team suspected that it was not the population of a town or the depth of its coffers that would determine the likelihood of success in creating a visionary PLACE®, but the quality of its leadership. Ajo was an important proving ground. Strong collaboration among ISDA's three-nation constituencies leveraged the necessary resources, and the force of will of the mobilized Ajo community carried the program. Leadership is one of the major factors that PLACE tries to assess in a first site visit after being invited to work with a community, and PLACE's model has been refined to take into consideration the breadth and depth of leadership capital in addition to the support of prominent leaders.


Let us help you create your visionary place. Give us a call. 


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