Tombstone merchants corral profits, ideas for tomorrow

Donnie Miller, no relation to the storefront namesake, enjoys greeting passers-by and local patrons of T. Miller’s Tombstone Mercantile and Hotel. When Miller moved to town, he learned a few greetings in German and French in order to make international visitors feel more at home. (Photo by: David J. Del Grande / Arizona Sonora News Service)

Statistics don’t tell the story of a community.

Reports can’t capture how a town’s aesthetic woos the bond between patron and merchant. Institutional determinations made from afar will always fail to paint the picture of what a city feels like, or how its streets sound under moonlight. 

The mileposts that say Tombstone is facing economic hardships are cropping up, but local merchants know differently.       

For the last seven years, the Old Tombstone Western Theme Park has turned a profit every week, said co-owner Lee McKechnie.

“We’ve had bad days of course, you have to, but we’ve never had a bad week,” said McKechnie. “And every year business has been growing.”

McKechnie’s western-style fantasyland, located at S. Fourth and Toughnut streets, features three daily gunfights on a replicated movie set, a cantina and restaurant, a toy shooting gallery geared for children, a gift shop and mini golf course with historical accounts of Tombstone at every hole. The Helldorado Stage, which is only open for special events, is also on site.

He’s planning to add more attractions by fall.

McKechnie started “The Tombstone Cowboys” acting troupe in 1997. They have been working on and off at the Helldorado Stage throughout the years. At the time, there was only one gunfight performance in town, he explained, and now there’s four.

He took over the property for his theme park in 2011, and he made a permanent home for his troupe. He also built the park’s active movie set where daily gunfights are held.

Lee McKechnie playing “Ringo” at the Old Tombstone Western Theme Park daily gunfight. (Photo by: David J. Del Grande / Arizona Sonora News Service)

McKechnie spent his career as an actor, stunt double and gun-handler and has worked on more than 30 movies, including: “Seven Mummies” (2006), “Interstate 60: Episodes of the Road” (2002) and the video game “The Last Bounty Hunter” (1994). In 1993, he played Val Kilmer’s stunt double in “Tombstone,” the blockbuster movie featuring Hollywood A-listers like Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton and Kilmer.

McKechnie actively promotes the gunfight reenactment at the O.K. Corral Historic Complex, he said, and that should be the first stop for new visitors.

But in order to stand out, McKechnie’s troop offers a “hysterically correct” account of the Old West, which blends history and comedy throughout the routine.

“We know what people want, we play to the audience,” McKechnie said. “And we keep them interested in the history by throwing some comedy and laughter in there.”

When he starts the performance, McKechnie lays the ground rules for the audience. The “good guys” will be wearing a blue sash, and the “bad guys” wear an opposing red sash. And no matter what, the good guy always wins, he explains. If the crowd doesn’t seem lively, he fires off a round in order to rouse the spectators. 

He performs in the gunfights at least four days every week. On his off days, McKechnie works on marketing, promotions and making repairs to the various sets.

He also owns the Tombstone Trolley Tours, which offers 25-minute narrated tours of the city to Boothill Graveyard and back.

Plus McKechnie’s currently selecting new actors for the “Virginia City Outlaws,” a theatre troupe he started 18 years ago that performs in Virginia City, Nevada from May to October. The popularity of this group offsets the cost of running Old Tombstone during the slow season. 

“And I have a really good manager down here who will take care of things in the slow months while I’m gone,” he said.

However, there are many facets that measure the strength of an economy, said Robert Carreira, director and chief economist at Cochise College Center for Economic Research.

Since the town’s economy is largely driven by tourism, tracking how many people visit the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park can indicate its commercial vitality, Carreira said.  

Between 2007 and 2017, annual visits declined almost 10 percent from 51,866 to 46,770, Carreira said via email. Unfortunately, Carreira only had gross domestic product information at the county level, which is the most reliable way to determine how an economy is faring. 

Another good indicator is the unemployment rate, he said.

“And Tombstone’s unemployment rate has long been lower than the county, state and national rates,” Carreira said.

In 2017, Tombstone’s annual unemployment rate was 2.3 percent, compared to 5.4 percent for Cochise County, 4.9 percent for Arizona and 4.4 percent nationally.

Tombstone’s unemployment rate dropped almost 1 percent during the last decade, but that was largely due to a shrinking labor force and not from job growth, Carreira said.

The city’s labor force — which is comprised of people either employed, or actively seeking work — declined by nearly a third during the same timeframe. And Tombstone’s population also dropped about 7 percent, a statistic that paints a picture of economic struggle.

Local retail sales mushroomed more than 40 percent between 2007 and 2017, topping out at $14.5 million last year. But Carreira said the recent opening of the Family Dollar store most likely contributed to the spike.

The movie “Tombstone” certainly sparked the local economy, he said, and another successful Hollywood blockbuster would undoubtedly do the same.

“It seems the city’s efforts recently to recapitalize on the movie — including bringing Val Kilmer out this past summer, along with the upcoming 25th anniversary bringing out celebrities once again — will give a boost to the city’s tourism industry,” said Carreira.

This year, Tombstone made True West Magazine’s “Top 10 True Western Towns,” which is a big seller for the publication, said Executive Editor Bob Boze Bell via email.

“Our goal at True West magazine is to give credit to the western towns who are making an effort to promote themselves … and reward them for their efforts,” Bell said.

Contributing editors at True West are asked to nominate cities that they think are exemplary, Bell said. The initial candidates are culled down to a few dozen, then the final list and the specific order towns are placed is decided over a heated debate.

About a decade ago, the merchants of Tombstone seemed to being working against one another, he said. Recently, there’s been a sea change locally and the folks at True West applaud these efforts.

“Landing Val Kilmer as grand marshal, and this year Dennis Quaid is very cool. And our hats are off to everyone who is pulling together to make the town competitive and vital again,” Bell said, referring to the annual Doc Holli-Days parade commemorating the infamous Tombstone resident’s birthday.

T. Miller’s Tombstone Mercantile and Hotel opened its doors 18 years ago and overall the business is growing, said owner Tina Miller.

“Each year’s been better than the last year — I can’t complain,” Miller said. “Tombstone’s been really good to me and business has been good.”

Miller said the key to financial success in Tombstone is offering more than one product. Although she has changed some of her business practices throughout the years, staying progressive is a must for any merchant.

Her shop is stocked with unusual items ranging among costume jewelry, Arizona-themed puppets including jackrabbits as well as reenactment clothing, both new and used, because some folks want to buy western gear that looks dusty and worn, Miller said.  

When she moved the shop to its current location, she renovated the four hotel rooms on the second floor. After Miller revived what used to be the Silver Nugget Hotel, styling each room with its own unique theme, the only getaway suites that overlook Allen Street are booked year-round.

But Tombstone needs to reinvent itself, Miller said. Older generations were attracted to the city, because they were raised watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. One way businesses could entice millennials to visit, is by creating a presence on social media, she said. A handful of shops, including T. Miller’s, are making a concerted effort towards growing their audience online.

Tombstone will always have the 30-second gunfight, Miller said, so introducing the lost arts of western culture such as silversmithing and horseshoeing may be another way to draw young people into town.

If a business shutters on Allen Street, filling the space is obviously important, Miller explained. But bringing in a unique shop like “Mario’s Bakery Cafe,” which is coming soon to Allen Street, will be a welcomed change. 

“I look forward to seeing new merchants,” Miller said. “It would be nice to encourage other people, with new ideas, to come in — that would upgrade our town.”

David J. Del Grande is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at djdelgrande@email.arizona.edu.

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