Real estate investor still has Tombstone dream

Real estate investor Ruben Suarez still has high hopes of contributing toward Tombstone’s history despite an ongoing bankruptcy. The Bella Union, background, is his most treasured asset, one he says aligns with his love of the town’s history. (Photo by Kevin Zimmerman/ASNS)Ruben Suarez’ dreams are too tough to die.

The real estate investor owns the historic Bella Union at 401 E. Fremont St. and the Adobe Lodge Motel at 501 E. Fremont St. in Tombstone, and even though both of the businesses are forcibly up for sale because Suarez is in the midst of a bankruptcy proceeding, he still has his dreams.

Suarez, a father of three and Tucson native, said he was drawn to Tombstone because “the history thing kind of made my business judgments a little fogged. It was a little emotional thing. You can’t get emotional.”

Despite his problems, Suarez said he hopes to keep the Bella Union, which he called his second home and the gem of all his holdings, which also include a motel and bowling alley in Benson and various lots in Tombstone.

“My dad brought us up going down there,” Suarez said, reminiscing of having water-gun fights with his brother in the same place where gunslingers made the town famous.

“I saw Hollywood westerns, and I fell in love with it. I was at the Bella Union Restaurant, and we were eating there. I had no idea I would finally buy it.”

During the long-ago days when real estate was booming, Suarez used loan upon loan to support his vision for making Tombstone the ultimate tourist destination.

He said that when tourists came to his Benson bowling alley asking for directions to Tombstone, he saw that as a sign that he needed to buy up properties leading into the historic town and create a chain of interconnected businesses.

“I thought it was solid,” he said. “I’m a real estate investor. I’m not really a motel operator or a museum operation.” He said the goal was to draw people to Tombstone.

He bought the Bella Union in 1999 during the boom times. He said his wife wanted him to sell it within a few years, but he couldn’t let go of it, even though it is used only occasionally for special events.

The Bella Union’s value swelled to $3.75 million at one point, Suarez said.

“It was a real estate investment,” he added.

But the Great Recession hit, and Suarez was in too deep. His money was tied up in one building and then the next, and soon he was stuck with properties and no money for improvements or operation.

“You shoot yourself in the foot,” he said. “When it rains, it pours.”

And then his wife, Martha Suarez, underwent major back surgery, and Suarez’s attention went from his business endeavors to her health.

One of the biggest problems was the rarely used Bella Union, a historic landmark that was first opened by John Clum as a post office in 1880. Over the years, it has been a saloon and restaurant and at one time housed cribs for prostitutes to work in and perhaps an opium den.

Now its future is uncertain, and locals say they wish Suarez’s properties could be operating on a regular basis and drawing in tourists.

“We definitely need more restaurants here,” said Joy Robeson, treasurer for the Tombstone Restoration Commission, who added that the Bella Union building is still in good structural shape.

“He restored the building,” she said. “He has maintained it very well.”

The Bella Union is now listed for sale for $2.9 million on the website of Bisbee RE/MAX agent Charles Gahn.

Suarez said he’s now hoping to build about 200 rooms on the lot he owns to the east of the Bella Union.

He said that would provide accommodations for large parties that might use the establishment in the future.

“I just want to get profitable,” Suarez said, adding that the bankruptcy reorganization will help. “I’m real optimistic about it.”

He said he’d like to keep as much of the prime Fremont properties as he can.

“Maybe I’m being greedy,” he said.

Meanwhile, Suarez still believes Tombstone will prosper in the future and people from all around the world will be drawn to it.

“(People travel to) New York, Grand Canyon, Denver and yet they go out of their way to go to Tombstone,” he said. “They’re on the right page, because it’s the history. You can’t go wrong in Tombstone. It’s never going to go out of style.”

Another version of this story appeared in the Tombstone Epitaph.

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