On school days, more than 900 students from kindergarten to eighth grade arrive for classes at Calabasas School in Rio Rico, just north of Exit 12 on the west side of Interstate 19.
The east side of the highway is lined with a gas station, storage facilities and produce warehouses. And on the west side, a few hundred feet from the school, Drug Enforcement Agency employees work out of a nondescript brick building with dark windows and a tall fence perimeter.
The DEA has operated from the location since 2000, but now a federal agency that manages property for the government is looking to move the site, apparently because of its proximity to the school.
The General Services Administration (GSA), which leases the property for the DEA’s use, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But a lobbyist for the property owner – Oklahoma City real estate firm Gardner Tanenbaum Holdings – says that the GSA has informed the owner that they won’t renew the government’s 20-year lease at the site when it expires in 2020 because it’s less than 1,000 feet from Calabasas School, which opened in January 2004, after the lease was signed.
The company stands to lose big if the DEA leaves the building.
Gardner Tanenbaum acquired the property in 2015 for $5.325 million, according to records filed with Santa Cruz County. That’s slightly less than the $5.4 million that the property sold for in 2006.
Lobbyist Bill Broydrick told the NI that the annual lease is $713,000 for the almost 20,000 square-foot space.
The building, which Broydrick said was purpose-built for the DEA in 2000, could end up empty if the government leaves.
“If the DEA leaves the building,” he said, “we believe it will be extremely difficult to find a new tenant, due to the specialized nature of the building and the real estate market in Rio Rico.”
DEA spokeswoman Erica Curry referred questions about the lease to the GSA and declined to say whether the building contained features such as secure vaults for guns and drugs.
But she said that the building is “built like any other law enforcement agency, and obviously there are specialized rooms that are required in facilities for the work that we do.”
Now, the owners are trying to secure the support of the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District (SCVUSD) in an effort to convince the GSA to change its mind.
Broydrick flew in from Washington, D.C. to speak to the school board on Tuesday, telling the board members that he had also spoken with U.S. Sens. Martha McSally and Kyrsten Sinema.
SCVUSD Superintendent David Verdugo, who was previously the principal at Calabasas, told the NI that he wasn’t worried about the DEA’s location.
“We’ve never, in my time as a principal or my time as a superintendent, had anybody bring any issues to us that concerned the proximity to that building,” he said, adding that “school safety is always our priority.”
Broydrick presented a letter to the school board and asked them to send it to the DEA.
He read a portion of the text out loud at the Tuesday meeting: “We have no objection if the DEA office remains at its current location… We have had no issues over the past 15 years with anyone or anything related to the building being located near our school.”
At the meeting, board members did not indicate whether they would send the letter.
Verdugo told the NI that the board would decide by its Sept. 24 meeting whether to send a version of the letter requested by Broydrick.
“I’m sure, after you write (this article), that if somebody does have a concern, that they would probably bring it to our attention,” he said. “And we would have some time to determine whether the board would want to object or not object.”