Going With the Flow
When access to its river aggregate supply was cut off, Churchman Sand & Gravel turned to recycling material brought in by construction and landscaping companies.
Fred Churchman opened Churchman Sand & Gravel in Tucson in 1946. Dick Smith became a partner in 1952 and, eventually, bought the business from Churchman. “It has been a sole proprietorship since 1972,” says Smith, “but we kept the name Churchman Sand & Gravel because that’s how customers know the company. We’re the oldest individually owned sand and gravel company in Tucson.”
The company initially began as a sand and gravel operation on the Rillito River in northern Tucson near the foothills. Raw material — sand, gravel, and rock — were taken from the river and processed. The supply of raw material was plentiful and business was booming until…
In 1983, there was a 100-year flood. “It washed out two of our neighbors’ houses,” Smith says, “and they sued me, Pima County, and one other builder across the river for $12 million. They said we diverted the water, causing it to erode their bank.”
The company settled the lawsuit in court two years later. The courts looked back at 30 to 40 years of river records. “Overlays showed how the river meanders and changes from year to year, proving our excavating in the river wasn’t necessarily the reason it cut into their bank,” Smith says. “We won the case.”
Unfortunately, winning the case didn’t mean it was back to business as usual for the company. Pima County decided to buy all property adjacent to the river, which meant Churchman Sand & Gravel could no longer excavate raw material. This was a big setback for the company, but it wasn’t the end. The company simply changed direction.
“At that point, we started importing material from exporting jobs,” Smith says. “Customers bring material in and dump it, and, in some cases, we bring it here ourselves. We don’t pay for the imported material, or charge for dumping, but we do charge for it once we process it. We clean it, screen it, size it, and either haul it back out for one of our jobs or sell it to construction companies, sometimes the same ones who brought in a load.”
Smith says the company builds house pads and does underground work, so he uses a lot of the processed material, but he gets foot traffic from small customers as well. “We are strictly a convenience for small loads such as pickups,” Smith says. “We’re the only operation in the foothills for miles in both directions. We make very little money from the little guys, but they do sometimes lead to larger sales. Our main source of income is from building house pads and selling landscaping material.”
The large rock at the operation comes from up in the foothills where access roads are being built for million-dollar homes. “A road builder brings it in,” Smith says. “We store it in an arroyo on the property. We can crush it and make something saleable out of it, but things have been so slow recently, we don’t worry about that now. With the lack of water in this area, almost all the rock gets used for decorative purposes in landscaping.”
The company also makes pipeline material for the city and the county for use in burying natural gas and water lines. Some material is used by phone companies, as well, for burying fiber optic lines. Churchman Sand & Gravel has even hired out to do the work themselves in places as far away as Nevada.
“We’re not a real big story,” Smith says, comparing the size of his present operation to what it once was. “We’ve got Peterbilt dump trucks and a transport, two water trucks, a crusher, screening, and three wheel loaders.”
Being a good neighbor
Sitting at the base of the foothills in Tucson can sometimes be a challenge. The foothills are considered to be “the” place for wealthier people to live in the Tucson area. Million-dollar homes are being built all around Churchman Sand & Gravel. The company is “grandfathered in” because it has been there so long, but Smith works hard to be a good neighbor. “We don’t start to work real early, and we avoid making noise on the weekend,” Smith says. “We try to be a good keeper of the property. We’ve never had a problem in all the years I’ve been here, but they just started building homes here 20 to 25 years ago.”
Complaints may not come from the surrounding homes, however, but from another source. When the county bought up all the land along the river and fenced it off, it also put in a walking/biking trail along the river. It runs between the river and the sand and gravel operation. “Of course, that hurt us,” Smith says. “We’ve had some complaints from those who use the trail. If we get a little bit of dust, they call in. We have a mountain of material between our work area and the trail to buffer the noise, so there’s never a complaint about noise — only dust. But we do our level best to not create a problem.”
The operation uses a late-model Komatsu mobile crusher that makes very little noise, but it has been moved off site. The Environmental Protection Agency informed Churchman Sand & Gravel that it would have to pay for a permit to have the crusher operating on the property. Smith decided to wait until business picked back up before purchasing the permit, so the crusher sits idle at another location.
Smith says regulations continue to get tighter every year. “You can’t just go out and build a pad. You have to be extremely careful about not tearing up the land around it. I’m all for that. I don’t like to see the land torn up.”
When it comes to safety, Smith is adamant. “State mine inspectors are a bit lax, but the federal government inspectors are sticklers,” he adds. “But the last time MSHA [Mine Safety and Health Administration] visited, we got a clean bill of health. I do everything in the world to maintain our safety.”
Looking to the future
When the economy tanked in 2008, Churchman Sand & Gravel was working on the foundation for a million-dollar house being built in the foothills. Two more million-dollar house foundations were on order as well. But then the recession hit, and “business shut off like a faucet,” Smith says. “We had nearly $300,000 worth of cancellations in four hours and ended up about $160,000 in debt because of it. It has been really hard to work through it, but we’re almost there.”
Smith looks forward to improved business in the future, and says he has no plans for retirement. “I’m 83 years old and don’t care anything about quitting,” he says, with a wink. “All of my friends are dead, and I have a son in the business, so I choose to stay and create as many problems as I can for him.”
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