Mining drove this town’s economy when Lynn Heglie decided to open a restaurant here in the early 1990s.
But the fortunes of the Magma Mine, one of the state’s largest copper producers, fell with copper prices. Finally, after years of decline, the mine shut down for good in 1996.
Today, with deteriorating, boarded-up buildings lining Main Street and far fewer people living here, Heglie and others hope that a discovery in the mountains just east of town will turn things around.
Resolution Copper Co., a joint venture of Anglo-Australian mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, wants to mine a copper deposit that’s more than a mile below a patch of the Tonto National Forest.
While environmental groups and Native Americans are objecting to the project and a land swap that would make it possible, you won’t find any opposition at Porter’s Cafe, Heglie’s latest venture.
“Resolution Copper has already lifted the spirits of the town,” he said. “I’d like to see a vibrant community again.”
Heglie sold his previous restaurant and opened this one next to Resolution Copper’s local office.
The mine wouldn’t begin production until 2020, but Mayor Michael Hing, who dropped by Porter’s Cafe, said the town’s prospects are looking up as Resolution Copper ramps up operations.
That includes recent high school graduates now running multimillion-dollar equipment being used to dig a 7,000-foot exploratory shaft, he said.
“Superior has a resource buried underground that will create wealth and become an economic producer for everybody,” Hing said.
Anthony Moraga, who used to work in the Magma Mine, shared that sentiment as he enjoyed a beer with friends nearby.
“I hope this mine will provide a good future for my grandchildren,” he said. “When the Magma Mine was in operation we had a hospital, a pharmacy, a library and good schools. Magma Mine really helped us out.”
In a telephone interview, Resolution Copper President David Salisbury said the company already has 270 full-time employees in Superior, and part-time workers and contractors’ employees bring that figure to 359.
That number could grow to as many as 1,400 with the mine at peak production, he said.
Resolution Copper has called the deposit in the Pinal Mountains the largest untapped reserve of copper in the U.S., and possibly the world – enough to supply a quarter of U.S. demand for 66 years.
Salisbury said every indicator points to copper demand and prices remaining high into the future, something he said bodes well for Resolution Copper’s plans in Superior.
“Copper is not going away as an important mineral in our society,” he said. “That makes this an important project for Arizona and our company.”
Legislation pending in Congress would swap 2,400 acres of protected land in the Oak Flat area of the Tonto National Forest for 5,500 acres elsewhere in the state to make way for the mine.
Salisbury said that even though Resolution Copper already has access to land around Oak Flat the mine can’t move forward without the swap.
With the land swap still uncertain, community members who support the mine have placed signs of support in windows along Main Street.
But not everyone here supports the mine. Tom Macias, an artist who accompanied a reporter to Oak Flat, said he worries that mining would damage the beauty of a site he’s frequented since childhood.
“We locals have a strong connection to this land and have always viewed it as something really special, Macias said. “But it’s not just a place for locals; it’s a place that belongs to all U.S. citizens.”
Carolyn Gray, an artist who joined Macias at Oak Flat, said she worries she won’t be able to visit the area, where she prays and draws inspiration for her Native American-themed art.
“We set our intentions each day on how we live, and what are values are. We should ask: ‘What are we valuing?’” Gray said. “I feel called to this sacred place.”
But back at Porter’s Cafe, Heglie said he only needs to look at the crumbing buildings and empty storefronts along Main Street to know that the mine is for the greater good.