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ED Now Feature: YP Voices: Agritainment Districts Turn Farms into Tourist Destinations
Eli Dile   on Monday, March 19, 2018 at 9:04:00 am

By Jennifer Lindley, Town of Queen Creek, Arizona

Every place has something special – something that resonates with residents which can be used to define and heighten its brand. Yet as communities develop, it can be challenging to preserve that special character. Queen Creek, Arizona, a town with a rich farming heritage, created an “agritainment” district to do just this. The district honors the community’s agricultural heritage while encouraging entrepreneurship and diversifying income streams through experiential tourism.

Building community values into zoning decisions

Queen Creek was born as a farming community in the early 1900s and incorporated in 1989 though the efforts of several founding families. As Queen Creek developed, several of the original farms not only remained active but became staples of the community, and destinations known across the country.

Agritainment was identified as an opportunity for economic growth that would also preserve the region’s character. Farm owners could diversify their operations, expanding beyond traditional farming to offer unique experiences that capitalize on the popular farm-to-table movement. Yet zoning restrictions emerged as a challenge, as agritainment properties are not simply farms but at the same time restaurants, petting zoos, event and wedding venues, or even amusement parks. In many cases, they’re all of these things and more.

“Every guiding document in the Town of Queen Creek spoke to preserving the farming history, but there was a gap between the town’s aspirations and actions,” said Queen Creek Development Services Director Chris Anaradian. “The area was rapidly changing, with the forces of growth leaving little room to nurture and expand the town’s agricultural heritage.”

In response, the city developed the South Specific Area Plan (SSAP), which modified our general plan to strike a balance between preserving the heritage of the area while enabling new uses for remaining agricultural lands. The SSAP also launched our Agritainment District, which opened new opportunities for land owners and visitors.

“The planning division deliberately researched similarly situated communities and engaged our successful farm owners to create a planning document that embraced the goals of the town, while providing the flexibility and support for our local farms and future developers,” Anaradian said. “The Agritainment District allows a variety of uses, including hotels, housing, retail, and even light manufacturing, along with farm and agriculture operations. That’s what makes it so unique. That’s what makes it work.”

Zoning Ordinance: Agritainment District

To provide for land uses that support and enhance agriculture use in the town. Such

uses shall be compatible with agriculture, and may include uses that support open space, natural resource management, outdoor recreation, enjoyment of scenic beauty, and commercial and residential uses. The Agritainment District requires a Planned Area Development (PAD) Overlay.

How it happened

The process to create the area plan began in 2014. It was a collaborative effort to draft a document that embodied the goals and vision of the town’s general plan while acknowledging changes in the economy and the region’s shifting development trends. During the course of the 20-month effort, we held a series of working meetings to discuss the main issues facing the area and outline the various elements of the document. Here’s a timeline of our efforts:

  • Feb. 19, 2014: Authorization to create the SSAP

  • Oct. 1, 2015: SSAP Major General Plan Amendment application formally submitted

  • Oct. 7, 2015: 60-day outside agency review

  • Oct. 27, 2015: Neighborhood meeting

  • Nov. 10, 2015: Public hearing (planning & zoning meeting)

  • Dec. 2, 2015: Public hearing (town council meeting)

  • Dec. 9, 2015: Public hearing and recommendation (planning & zoning meeting)

  • Dec. 16, 2015: Public hearing and approval (town council meeting)

While the SSAP was being created, the town’s zoning ordinance also was updated with the newly developed Agritainment District.

Engaging the right people

The agritainment ordinance and SSAP were collaborative efforts among the town’s planning and economic development staff, business owners, and farmers. The town received valuable input while researching other areas with similar ordinances.

“It was exciting to be part of the process,” said Mark Schnepf of Schnepf Farms. “The staff really listened to those of us doing agritainment, and working together, we were able to craft a zoning district that allows us to be creative, unique, and grow in the decades ahead. I’ve been involved with zoning issues for 35 years and have never felt so comfortable with the process and outcome.”

Schnepf Farms offers pick-your-own-fruit experiences, school tours, company picnics, and weddings. Other businesses to benefit from the new ordinance include the Queen Creek Olive Mill (Arizona’s only producer of 100 percent extra virgin olive oil) and Sossaman Farms, which includes a flour mill that makes products from unconventional grains.

Sossaman Farms, owned and operated by one of the town’s founding families, was the first property to take advantage of agritainment zoning. An 11-acre project will transform a portion of the farm into “Heritage Corner,” which will offer dining options, special events, and education about farm operations. The first phase of the expansion is nearly complete, and will feature new processing and milling operations to enable pasta manufacturing.

“We had a vision for agritainment, and we worked with town staff to implement that vision,” said Steve Sossaman of Sossaman Farms. “The outcome allows for creativity with fewer restrictions. It allows us, and future farmers and developers, to proceed with their vision. The zoning category was key.”

Economic impact

The Queen Creek Olive Mill and Schnepf Farms alone bring in more than $10 million in visitor spending – and more than $230,000 in sales tax revenues – each year. As a result of the town's commitment to preserve, protect, and grow these destinations, we estimate visitor spending will exceed $19 million by 2023, bringing in more than $400,000 in sales tax revenue each year. 

For Queen Creek, the SSAP and Agritainment District provide a new growth opportunity while supporting local business owners and preserving our rural, agricultural heritage.

“Agritainment will help transform our community into an international tourism destination,” said Queen Creek Economic Development Director Doreen Cott. “The emergence of agritainment businesses has provided us with a unique focus and strategy for augmenting our economy.”

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Jennifer Lindley is economic development coordinator for the Town of Queen Creek, Arizona, and a member of IEDC's Young Professionals Advisory Committee.

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