Florence: It’s not just for prisoners anymore.
The sleepy town, known mostly for its history and two-thirds incarcerated population, is poised for explosive growth and sweeping change that will redefine the area as an East Valley growth hot spot and recreational haven, local officials say.
Four residential developments representing as many as 14,000 new homes are planned for the near future, the largest of which is a 3,200-acre Pulte Homes community tentatively dubbed Anthem at Merrill Ranch.
In all, the new communities could boost the current nonprison population of about 6,000 to as many as 50,000 — double that if all goes well.
"It’s going to change Florence from what it’s been in the past," Mayor Tom Rankin said. "I think we’re prepared for it, but who knows?"
The Merrill Ranch project would be similar to the original Anthem in the northwest Valley, with amenities such as a community center, a water park, ballfields, trails, parks, picnic areas and golf course, said Jacque Petroulakis of Pulte Homes’ Del Webb division.
Unlike the other Anthem, Merrill Ranch would include a retirement area à la Sun City in addition to a "lifestyle" community and a traditional family neighborhood.
Pulte paid about $87 million to buy the land from three different owners, including developers Harrison Merrill and George Johnson, Petroulakis said
Florence annexed about 8,000 acres last year on the northwest side of town to accommodate the new development, nearly doubling the town’s size, Vice Mayor Tom Smith said.
A small portion of Merrill Ranch is still on county land, but the town plans to annex that as well.
The Pulte Homes project, expected to start selling in 2006, could put as many as 9,000 houses on its portion of the annexed land, but Smith said there is room for as many as 30,000 homes.
Despite the dramatic changes, Smith said the town’s unique character will remain intact.
"We have to make sure that the original part of Florence — the historic district — stays that way," he said.
Also imperative is ensuring there will be enough water to accommodate all the new swimming pools, trees, lawns and showers.
Arizona Department of Water Resources spokesman Jack Lavelle said the town has submitted an application to provide the new areas with water, but the request is still under review.
To move development forward, Florence must demonstrate that it has access to at least a 100-year water supply.
"They’re going to have to show us that the water is there," Lavelle said.
Smith said there is enough water underground to accommodate the currently proposed development, but any growth beyond that will have to be examined carefully.
"We have to do this one piece at a time as we go," he said.
In addition to new residents, Florence officials also hope to attract more visitors to the town.
Florence recently took over as host to the Country Thunder music festival and is now vying to become the new home of Scottsdale’s struggling Rawhide western theme park.
Pinal County Supervisor Sandie Smith, D-District 2, said development in Florence is inevitable as the East Valley’s growth wave continues to extend outward.
"They’re really starting to boom," Smith said. "So is Coolidge."