Archaeologist Jerry Howard has dreamed for years of transforming the Mesa Grande ruins near Brown Road in Mesa into a park for the public.
The site is home to the ancient temple grounds of the Hohokam Indians, and it’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Mesa has owned the land since 1985, and archaeologists and volunteers from the Mesa Southwest Museum have been studying and preserving the land for more than two decades.
But today, there is still a lack of funding for the park and the plan remains in limbo. The proposal has sat on a waiting list of capital improvement projects for more than 21 years.
“It’s our greatest accomplishment,” Howard said, referring to public ownership of the mound. “But it’s also our greatest pain.”
The holdup, as usual, is money.
The city this year will apply for $600,000 in Indian casino funds to help get the overdue project off the ground. The money would be used to build interpretive trails, signs, shade shelters and to pay for a study that would lead to an educational visitors center, said Tom Wilson, director of the Mesa Southwest Museum.
The park enhancements would cost $5 million or more. When finished, it would be similar to the Pueblo Grande public recreation site in Phoenix.
Mesa and museum officials hope to someday build an environmentally friendly 30,000-square-foot visitors center with exhibits on the Hohokam tribe, trails, parking and restrooms.
The problem is, Mesa has applied for the casino money twice before and was rejected both times. This will be the city’s third attempt to secure the money to build a Mesa Grande park.
It is one of 18 projects Mesa will pitch to Indian tribes for grant consideration, said Jerry Dillehay, the city’s grants coordinator. Altogether, the projects would cost $9.7 million to complete.
Mesa Grande is one of the few surviving platform mounds in the Valley. It is larger than a football field. Between 1000 and 1450 A.D., it served as a place of religious significance for the Hohokam tribe, according to museum officials.
Throughout the years, Howard and others have made discoveries on the mound and learned about its important role in the Hohokams’ irrigation system.
Howard said researchers believe the mound sat at the head of a major canal and that the tribe used it to control water flow, using special gates.
“We found a walled entryway going up to the mound that hadn’t been found before,” Howard said. “We found a doorway that we still haven’t been able to explain around one area of the mound. That will probably tell us a lot about how the mound was built, what the architecture was like and how the structure was used.”
Public support for preserving the site dates back to 1927, Howard said. That’s when Phoenix opened its Pueblo Grande mound to the public. In response, Mesa residents marched down Main Street to promote the Mesa Grande site. In 1985, the city purchased the mound from the Ross family for $1.3 million to make sure it will be preserved, Wilson said.
In 2000, Mesa considered selling bonds to pay for the preservation project. But at the last minute, the $4.5 million for the effort was instead used to expand the Mesa Southwest Museum.
Four years ago, the city began applying for Indian gaming grants but was turned down. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community
denied the request on the grounds that the city allegedly did not follow prehistoric burial procedures — a charge that Howard says is false. In fact, he says he helped write and lobby for a state law that created a standard for burial, and the city was repatriating all human remains to the tribes well before the legislation took effect.
On the second try in 2005, Howard said Mayor Keno Hawker decided to pull the grant application because he feared the city might not have the staff to support a park once it opened.
Last year, the city submitted another application for gaming funds for the park and again was denied, this time because Howard said the tribe was fearful Mesa’s financial difficulties would prevent the city from being able to maintain the park after it’s built.
In the past, the city has applied specifically to the Salt River community, but this year the city is thinking of broadening the application to other tribes that operate casinos in the region, Dillehay said. The grants are contingent on having good relationships with tribes, and the city has been working to cultivate those over the past few years, he said.
Howard said he hopes the tribes will elect to support the project.
“I was an endless optimist for many years,” Howard said. “We’d get the rug pulled out from under us, and we’ve simply picked ourselves up and tried to find something else we can do.”
“After you’ve done that over 15 years, where do you go from there?”
But Wilson, who has only been with the museum for about four years now, is confident the project will come to fruition.
“We’ll keep going,” he said. “We’ve had it for 20 years. We’re going to get it.”