By JULIANNE STANFORD
Tombstone Bureau Chief / Arizona Sonora News
It’s an overcast, early fall Sunday afternoon in Tombstone, and Allen Street is nearly empty. You can almost imagine a tumbleweed blowing across the wood-plank sidewalk near the O.K. Corral.
Over a decade ago, a cool autumn afternoon would have brought in droves of Wild West enthusiasts, day trippers, intrigued passersby from the freeway and regulars from Tucson looking for an afternoon’s diversion among the shops and Old West attractions.
As brooding clouds roll over the mountains with the threat of an afternoon rainstorm, only a few families mill up and down the street. The sharp cracks from facsimile guns ring out from a gunfight re-enactment down the way.
Idle hired gunslingers lean against the street barricades, waiting to entice the trickle of visitors making their way down the boardwalk. Shops are mostly empty, save for the employees at the counters.
Slow days such as this have become commonplace in Tombstone over the past decade, leading to the question of whether the “Town Too Tough To Die” does, however, have one foot in the grave, at least as a vibrant tourist attraction.
The Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park recorded an almost 19 percent decrease in the amount of visitors to come through its doors since 2005, according to statistics from the Arizona Office of Tourism and the Cochise College Center for Economic Research. Last year there were more than 48,000 visitors, down from almost 60,000 ten years prior.
Nevertheless, Tombstone in fact is a tough old town, its residents say. It continues to survive, while seeking new ways to entice visitors and bring the story of the Old West to a new generation that didn’t grow up on cowboy movies and may be less enthralled with the idea of a reenactment of a street gunfight, however historically resonant it might be.
In fact, last year, tourism picked up, with a notable increase in the number of visitors from the previous year, indicating Tombstone is still relevant as a tourism destination.
“Visits to the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park were down 3.8 percent in the first sever months of
this year, but that follows a 13.3 percent increase for all of 2015,” said Robert Carreria, chief economist of the Cochise College Center for Economic Research. “Visits to the park last year were at their highest level since 2010.”
Tombstone is still a town that draws people who want to start a new life. Gene Alberts rode into town on his motorcycle with his dog in the sidecar one afternoon in February. “Next thing I know, someone says, ‘Do you want to be a gunfighter?’ and I said, ‘Sure, why not?’,” Alberts said.
That’s how he became known as the “Doggie Cowboy,” in town with his new-found career as gunslinger and guide for Good Enough Mine tours, an attraction focused on Tombstone’s short-lived fame as a mining mecca in the late 19th Century.
Still, Alberts notices the often empty streets, despite the recent uptick in visitors.
“People just don’t come here,” Alberts said. “People are really having a hard time making ends meet, [including] locals who are trying to make a living here.”
It is not like the old days he’s heard about from c0-workers. “The story is that we used to take 200 or 300 people a day down into the mines,” he said. “Now we’re lucky to get a tour of 30 or 40 people.”
Kristen Zimits has lived in Tombstone for five years, three of them working at the Fallen Angel Sweet Sin Parlor bakery and confectionery.
“This past week has been really, really dead. Mondays and Tuesdays used to be really busy, you’d get an up and down in the middle of the week, and the weekends we’d be really busy,” she said.
While the summer is often slow, Zimits said the numbers of visitors often pick up again near the end of September through the end of October and into Thanksgiving, only to slow down again near Christmas. Over the holidays there’s a slight bump in visitors before dropping off again.
If you walk up and down the main drag, Allen Street, some closed up shops have for sale signs posted in windows. It’s similar on other streets nearby, where tourist attractions and Old West-themed businesses once sprawled in numbers.
“Allen Street is much more the hub of what happens now,” said Tim Fattig, a ticket seller at the O.K. Corral, one of the busiest spots in town. “There’s not as much business on the other streets, Fremont or Safford, not as much business on Toughnut.”
Fattig has lived in Tombstone for nearly two decades. “It’s very much the survival of the fittest thing now,” he said. “The economy just isn’t supporting as many of the businesses or the variety of the businesses that it did a few years ago. I don’t think we’re doing poorly, but I think there are fewer businesses taking the lion’s share of the business.”
Some businesses, such as specialty shops, are faring better than others. Carolyn Ester, a six-year resident who works at Spur Western Wear, said she’s seen an increase in business in the shop compared to last year, and in town overall.
“This year, we’re doing pretty good in comparison to last year’s figures,” Ester said.
Looking for the big picture
Tombstone and the 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral that long formed the focus of its tourist lure have been the subject of many western movies over any decades. Many residents believe another movie and a more aggressive marketing campaign would be the sparks to ignite another tourism boom.
Hollie Griffin has lived in Tombstone for 27 years, 10 of them working at John B. Stetson Quality Hats millinery shop. She’s noticed a definite decline in the amount of visitors she sees in town since she first arrived in Tombstone, but she said it makes sense. “But I was also here when the movies were out, so of course I see a decline,” Griffin said.
“Those movies went out in 80 languages. So people from all over the world come here and they come here for our history,” Griffin said. “Europe didn’t have a history like our Old West, like we didn’t have it of castles and dungeons and knighthood.”
“We need another movie,” she said, and she had a pitch for Hollywood: “And we need it about Doc Holliday, and we need it now” she said.
O.K. Corral employee Fattig also recalls the surge in tourism in Tombstone after the release of a 1994 film Wyatt Earp, which starred Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid and Gene Hackman, and the 1993 movie Tombstone, which starred Kurt Russell, Bill Paxton and Sam Elliott.
“They were a huge boom, putting people in hotel rooms, people buying food, buying souvenirs, seeing shows. That did wonders for use, but twenty years is a long time,” Fattig said. “After a few years, it declined and that is a natural progression.”
There is, in fact, some indication that interest in Old West is returning.
“Westworld is coming out on HBO, who knows what that is going to do later this year,” he said. “We have The Magnificent Seven remake coming out right now, and I think it’s made a few people understand, ‘Oh, this was a real period, this happened’.” The remake of the 1960 classic western The Magnificent Seven rossed $35 million in domestic ticket sales at the box office during its first weekend
HBO’s Westworld is a futuristic science-fiction drama that will take place against the backdrop of a western theme and is scheduled to premiere on October 2.
“All these things cause a real point of interest for people,” he said. “They go look at a historical book, they do research online, and in some cases hopefully that will translate to wanting to go to Tombstone, and say ‘Let’s go to the real places and learn about these real people’.”
Fattig said that while another movie would definitely kick-start tourism again, it would only be a quick fix to a problem that needs a long-term solution.
“Everyone here says, ‘Oh, they need to make another movie,’ and while that’s true, but you do need to have another strategy for the period when they’re not making another movie and nothing having another Wyatt Earp or Tombstone coming down the pike,” Fattig said.
Among viable alternatives are the special events organized periodically throughout the year, such as the Tombstone Territorial Days, or Hellorado Days.
“Those festival weekends are a great time to show off the town,” Fattig said. “Everyone dresses up, there are shows on the street. The town looks as good as it can, and when people go online to do their research for travelling, they look at those festivals and say ‘that’s what we want to do’.”
In fact, the festivals are often so popular that the town can become overrun with wall-to-wall visitors.
“It’s two hours to get lunch, two hours to find a place to park, it’s almost more than the town can handle in some ways,” Fatting said.
So don’t compose that Tombstone “epitaph” just yet.
Fattig believes the economic downturn isn’t the end for the town that has survived over 100 years of turbulence, prosperity and everything in between.
“We have been up against so many things historically, and even in more recent history, the economic downturns, but I think the character of the town and the character of the people who live here and the character of the people who come here will keep it going no matter what’s going on,” he said.
Fattig said perhaps the greatest challenge Tombstone faces today isn’t just reviving the public’s interest in the Old West, but encouraging people to get off the couch and experience history in an authentic location.
“I would say our competition in Tombstone isn’t the guy across the street. It’s Best Buy. It’s the home theater system where you can go buy a Blu-Ray called ‘Tombstone’, put it in your DVD player and sit at home and eat a pizza and say ‘close enough’,” Fattig said.
Tombstone does have some internal problems that need to be addressed, such as the poor generational turnover in town, and the destination’s growing reputation as a tourist trap.
“These business owners don’t have kids who want to move to Tombstone and take over the business for
them, so when they close up, they’re not handing it down to the next generation,” Fattig said.
Some visitors to Tombstone complain that the prices are too high for what they get.
“Certainly a lot of people feel the town is over commercialized, and all I can tell them is that we are not a theme park,” Fattig said. “We’re not a state park, we don’t receive public funding in Tombstone. For all of the landmarks we have, the only one we have that has any sort of public participation financially is the courthouse.”
And so those $10 admission fees to shows and tours go directly towards the upkeep and maintenance of the historic buildings. “Tombstone and historic towns like it are a lot cheaper than going to Disney World as far as what one could spend on a vacation dollar-to-dollar,” he said.
“This is real history in a way that is presented authentically in the places where it actually happened and you can’t find that in a lot of these towns that have a western heritage,” he said. “Tombstone has the history that the other towns do, but the difference is here that you can see it in the places where it actually happened. It’s not a replica; it’s not a simulation; it’s not a theme park. It’s a real town where these things actually happened.”
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Julianne Stanford is a senior pursuing a degree in journalism and political science with an emphasis on international relations at the University of Arizona. After graduation, she hopes to cover international news for print or public radio. Julianne is an Arizona native, born and raised in Phoenix; she enjoys hiking, traveling, playing a board game or reading a good book with a big cup of black coffee in her spare time.