They’re the ones who will quadruple Florence’s nonprison population. They’ll stretch the definition of “East Valley” even farther down Hunt Highway, farther into Pinal County. Their presence will demand new retail, medical and school facilities in the county and town, including Florence’s first major chain grocery store, a Safeway.
The first residents of Anthem at Merrill Ranch will make their homes there this summer, and, for a while at least, they’ll travel on two-lane roads to do it.
The major housing development northeast of Florence’s core, including homes for senior citizens and families, is expected to fill by 2012, with more than 20,000 people — the current population of Queen Creek. The first sale closings on homes there are slated for July.
Florence Town Manager Himanshu Patel said probably more than 100 of the roughly 9,100 homes in the subdivisions have been sold. He said the home construction is generating excitement in the town of 5,400.
“The concept is going from a stagnant community that hasn’t seen a lot of growth to facing a lot of development here,” Patel said. “We’re facing initial challenges that others have faced with growth, places like Gilbert and Queen Creek.”
Patel said almost everyone is anticipating new shopping and job opportunities.
“You always have a small group that want to maintain a rural lifestyle and don’t want to be burdened by the impact of urbanization, but I think a lot of people are excited by it because it can bring services that we don’t have in Florence currently,” he said. “When you’ve been living here a long time and you only have one choice for a grocery store, that doesn’t bring new opportunities. When people have the ability to make choices, that’s when you know a community can thrive.”
Projections show Florence reaching a population of 100,000 within 15 years, Patel said, adding that things could easily change depending on housing sales.
Some call those buying the new homes “pioneers,” others wonder how they’ll live all the way “out there” so far from the Valley. But, most of those looking at model homes last week already live somewhere out there — Johnson Ranch, southeast of Queen Creek.
Tiffany Bodemann, a Johnson Ranch resident, said she was looking for an area her family could grow with and was attracted by the sense of community she associates with the Anthem name.
“What’s a few more miles if this can provide a better community?” said Bodemann, who brought her 2 1 /2-year- old daughter to a meeting with a landscaper Thursday for her new home.
Del Webb and Pulte Homes spokeswoman Jacque Petroulakis said developers are building Anthem at Merrill Ranch because of demand from buyers like Bodemann.
“People who are buying at Merrill Ranch consider themselves pioneers,” she said. “One of the main reasons we targeted the East Valley was we had many people saying, ‘We want to live in a largescale Del Webb community, but we want to live in the East Valley.’ ”
John Montgomery, another Johnson Ranch resident, said he was looking for a second home as an investment property. Family homes at Anthem range in starting prices from $179,900 to $449,900 and in size from 1,250 square feet to 4,223 square feet.
“Pinal County’s booming and you’ve got the lower prices here,” Montgomery said.
Queen Creek residents Denise and Jonathan Shields said they were looking for a family neighborhood for their daughter, 2, and their son, 1. The potential commute doesn’t faze the couple — Jonathan is a landscaper who can work near home.
Though traffic from Johnson Ranch has been a bane for Queen Creek, Town Manager Cynthia Seelhammer said Anthem at Merrill Ranch is farther from that town’s planning area, presenting less of a concern. Still, each new home anywhere is said to generate 10 trips per day, Seelhammer said. That means about 91,000 new trips daily for Pinal County’s already jammed roads by 2012.
To avoid more traffic jams in Queen Creek, Anthem officials hold up a route that involves some backtracking as the best way to get there — visitors are told to take U.S. 60 east to state Highway 79 to Florence and then take Hunt Highway northwest to Anthem at Merrill Ranch. The alternative is taking streets through Queen Creek to Hunt Highway.
Patel said Florence has been working with the Anthem developers toward transportation improvements. The town expects to build another crossing over the Gila River to help get new residents to the town core from the housing development.
Developers plan eventual road improvements to the tune of $100 million — about $40 million of that will improve Felix and Franklin roads and Hunt Highway — the major routes in the area, Petroulakis said.
Patel said improving those roads is key to uniting the new communities with Florence. The model homes are about a 10-mile drive on mostly twolane roads from Florence’s town center, or, the state prison complex.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to resolve a traffic problem, you’re just going to mitigate it,” Patel said. “Most of the roadways around here are two lanes, one lane in each direction. The critical component is making sure we get those roads widened to four lanes, six lanes.”