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The future of Old Tucson will showcase the past

Posted: 2:53 PM, Mar 30, 2022
Updated: 2022-04-05 09:44:57-04
Old Tucson Studios

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Earlier this month, Pima County recommended that American Heritage Railways be awarded the lease to Old Tucson Studios.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors are expected to vote on the five year lease next week.

American Heritage Railways tells KGUN 9 that it plans to reopen the theme park later this year. That announcement delighted Carolyn Shelton, the widow of Old Tucson founder Bob Shelton.

"Yeah, I know he's doing a happy dance," said Carolyn Shelton.

She believes her late husband is with her in spirit, celebrating the news of a new entertainment company coming in to reopen Old Tucson.

Bob Shelton founded Old Tucson Studios as a Wild West theme park in 1960.

He also played a large role in Old Tucson being used as a filming location for legendary actors like John Wayne.

But the theme park was nearly destroyed by a massive fire in 1995.

Old Tucson did recover, but it couldn't survive the pandemic. It closed in September of 2020.

"After the fire, things changed," Carolyn Shelton said. "Things change and we have to accept that. Now we're ready for another change. It happened in strange ways."

That change is American Heritage Railways, the company Pima County is recommending to take over the lease and reopen Old Tucson Studios.

"We're all so excited for this opportunity to be in Tucson," American Heritage Railways General Manager recently told KGUN 9. "To work at Old Tucson, which is such an historic site, and to really bring what we do best -- which is the entertainment, the preservation and bringing this property back to life."

Harper reached out to Carolyn Shelton as American Heritage Railways was trying to acquire the lease to Old Tucson. She says they've asked about using some of Bob Shelton's memorabilia, as part of their preservation efforts.

She believes this is the right fit for Old Tucson and for the community.

"Yep, I can see future jobs," Shelton said. "They want to do it right and it sounds like they know how to do things right."

American Heritage Railways is based in Durango, Colorado, and currently operates three historic railways. That includes the "Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad."

After Pima County's 18 month nationwide search, Shelton believes this is the right company and the right time to reopen Old Tucson.

"We've put up with the worst and now we're going to have the best," Shelton said.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors are scheduled to vote on the new lease April 5.

John Harper says his company will hit the ground running as soon as they are awarded the Old Tucson lease.

RELATED: Pima County Supervisors approve new Old Tucson operator lease

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Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. His father, Jack Parris, is a former general manager of the station. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing pat.parris@kgun9.com or by connecting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.