This is our 11th Local Heroes issue, started as a way for us to celebrate what's good in Tucson and tell everyone to take a break from criticizing us for being, well, so negative all the time.
Perhaps in this day and age, dear reader, it's no longer about us taking a moment to redeem ourselves. Local Heroes is a reminder of the good that exists in our community. It's a map. When we start to wonder what kind of change we can have in this big bad world of ours, here's a guide to your own backyard.
That backyard is waiting for you, and perhaps someday, you can be a local hero or maybe you already are in your own wonderful Old Pueblo way.
Here's a thing that Vanessa Bechtol really loves about her job as executive director of the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance: She gets to tell stories.
"I get to talk about all the things that make Tucson and the greater Santa Cruz Valley something that people appreciate," she says. "It's a fun way to connect people to our history and culture."
Bechtol has headed up the Heritage Alliance since 2007. (For most of that time, she's also been the sole employee or, as she puts it: "It's a one-woman show"—with, of course, full support from her board of directors.) Before landing this gig, she worked as a planner with a conservation organization. But her work with the Heritage Alliance "brings people back into the mix, so I thought that was a fun way to do conservation work: Instead of just doing land conservation, really talking about how people are connected to the land."
Over the last eight years, the Heritage Alliance has accomplished a lot: It has published maps and guidebooks to the region. It has a digital presence on the web and mobile devices that guides people through a variety of "heritage experiences": the sky islands; streams in the desert; bird habitats and migration patterns; Native American life ways; desert farming; ranching traditions; Spanish and Mexican frontier; mining booms; U.S. military posts on the Mexico border; and U.S.-Mexico border culture. It has developed a "heritage foods" program celebrating local farms, ranchers and chefs, which fits into today's emphasis on farm-to-table ethos. And in conjunction with Visit Tucson, it has developed an app that helps people find historic and locally owned businesses in downtown, which is often accompanied by a historic photo so people can compare yesterday's architecture to today's.
That's a big deal in the modern tourism market; as many as 90 percent of travelers these days are seeking out authentic experiences in geo-tourism, eco-tourism and heritage tourism.
"It's going somewhere and getting engaged to community," Bechtol says. "When you go somewhere, you want to eat where the locals eat. You want to experience all those things that make that city special to the people who live there. So for Tucson and the Santa Cruz Valley, there are really obvious things like the Desert Museum and Saguaro National Park and San Xavier Mission, but there are also the smaller hidden gems, such as Old Tucson and the Historical Society Museum or little shrines like El Tiradito in the barrio."
The Heritage Alliance also played a key role in a recent application to the United Nations to declare Tucson a "City of Gastronomy" under UNESCO's Creative Cities project. There are roughly a half dozen cities of gastronomy across the world and Bechtol learned a few weeks ago that the city did not pass muster with this year's application, but the proposal's boosters—who include chef Janos Wilder, Native Seeds/SEARCH founder Gary Paul Nabhan and UA Dean of Sciences Joaquin Ruiz—plan to try next year.
"We will be reapplying in March and it may take an extra year but perhaps by this time next year we will be an official UNESCO City of Gastronomy," Bechtol says. "I think we still have something we can put to use over the next year and we have a great resource for the community. We're going to keep plugging away as if we got it."
The Heritage Alliance was originally formed with the notion of persuading Congress to declare the Santa Cruz river valley a National Heritage Area. That kind of designation helps put the marketing power of the National Parks Service to work on behalf of the region, which is especially valuable in tourism today because vacationers are increasingly seeking authentic experiences. Up to 90 percent of the economic benefit of leisure travelers came from people interested in cultural and heritage tourism, according to a 2013 survey by Mandala Research and Consulting.
Bill Doelle, a Heritage Alliance founding board member, says the Heritage Area designation seemed like a natural when he first began meeting with other stakeholders about lobbying Congress in 2003. At the time, there were about a dozen Heritage Areas across the country; now there are nearly 50.
Doelle remembers that Bechtol "hit it out of the park" during her job interview.
"She communicated an enthusiasm about something that everyone on that interview panel was very committed to," Doelle says. "It was clear she got it and she was going to be the person you could go out there and sell this idea and keep the ball rolling."
Bechtol came to Tucson from the Napa Valley to attend the UA. She earned a bachelor's degree in Latin American Studies and a master's in planning and then went to work for a conservation organization before she landed the Heritage Alliance job.
"For me, it was such a great fit," Bechtol says. "I was at a point in my career grows looking to do something different."
The one thing that remains out of reach is the federal designation. Although the U.S. House of Representatives has twice voted to grant the designation, Arizona's Republican senators have blocked it over worries that it could someday new restrictions on land use. But Bechtol—who insists those fears of restrictions are unfounded—says the push will continue.
"The hold up is always been in the Senate," Bechtol says, "so we will continue to work with our representatives in the Santa Cruz Valley and our two senators to get them on board."