Caverns State It has all the makings of an Old West poker game like they used to have in the saloons in old Benson. Everyone is holding to their opinions, and at least one participant has a shotgun under the table.
At stake is the future of Kartchner Caverns State Park. And a proposed $40 million luxury resort next to it. And maybe the economic survival of a small southeast Arizona city whose economy is on the wrong side of the tracks.
The Benson City Council will vote Wednesday night on whether to approve a resort - complete with $1,000-a-night casitas, stores and amphitheater - a ridgeline away from the park's northern boundary. The city's Planning and Zoning Board has approved the proposal, over the objections of State Parks experts who worry that pollution from the resort might poison the fragile ecosystem of the caverns that have become the jewel of the state park system.
The developer's experts say the park system's experts are wrong, and the resort won't affect the groundwater so precious to the caverns' existence. Benson's economic development director, who sees the resort as a way to bring millions of dollars into a city that badly needs it, thinks that not building because of a remote possibility of damaging the caves is ridiculous.
And the park system is adamant about not having the resort built on the same geologic formation in which the caves are.
In this poker game, the state is the one with the shotgun: Parks officials can claim eminent domain on the resort property, and the only thing that gets resolved is how much the state has to pay the developer. They've already told the developer that. And it creates an interesting situation, even by the state's admission.
"Every time we tell them...