The ROX Interview: Mila Besich

 

Mayor, Town of Superior

Interview by Bea Lueck

I first met Mila about five years ago as we worked on various print projects. At that time she was very involved with Copper Corridor Economic Development Coalition as executive director, sold advertising for the Copper-Area News Publishers, a member of several chambers of commerce, served on the Superior school board and was a councilwoman on the Superior Town Council. And if she didn’t have enough on her plate, she decided to run for mayor! To say she was a little busy is a slight understatement. Yet through it all the craziness, Mila always had a cheerful smile, kind words to say, and a positive can-do attitude, no matter what hurdles life presented to her. I hope you enjoy getting to know a little more about this dedicated, vivacious woman – Mayor Mila Besich.

GC LIVING: What we’ll do is start at the very beginning of Mila’s life. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Siblings, parents, all of that.


Mila Besich: I’m going to tell you the story of how I got my name. It was planned I would be born here at the Magma Hospital in Superior, but my mom experienced some complications and they couldn’t perform a C-section in Superior so they had to take her in the ambulance to, at the time, Mesa Lutheran Hospital. There are still people close to my friends and family in this community who remember the ambulance having to take my mom so I could be delivered down in the Valley.

There was a doctor and his wife from the Philippines. She was also a doctor but not able to practice in America. She went with my mom in the ambulance and her name was Milagros “Mila” Yang. My dad decided to name me JoAnn Milagros after Mrs. Yang who helped my mom. Mila is actually an abbreviation or nickname. They used to call Mrs. Yang “Mila” because Milagros is a lot to say. And long story short, I was named after this really amazing woman who helped my mom. My dad’s family emigrated from Croatia and in Croatian Mila means “loved by many” or “dear one.” It’s also a very common name in Spanish, Milagros means “miracle.”

While my first few hours of life were in Mesa, my parents raised me in Superior. I was an only child. My parents, JoAnn Preciado Besich and Steve Besich, were both graduates of the Superior High School class of 1969. Both families had been here for a very long time. My grandparents even graduated from Superior High School. Our family has been in Superior for five generations. Both my mom and my dad worked for the mine. My dad was a machinist and involved in the union, and my mom was the lab and X-ray technician for the mine hospital.

I graduated from Superior High School in 1996. My mom commuted to Florence to work at the prisons where she continued her lab and X-ray career. My dad finished his degree, and began a career in public service working for CAG and then Gila County, and went on to be the Gila County manager. My dad served as the vice mayor of Superior. He and my grandfather Nick Besich both served on the school board. My great-grandfather, Paul Besich, who emigrated from Dubrovnik, Croatia, was one of the founding members of the Superior Rotary and a business owner. My mom’s brother, Billy Preciado, also served on the Superior Town Council and as mayor. People often ask, “How did you get involved in politics? Did you want to get involved in politics?” And I respond, “It’s hereditary.” Both sides of my family had been very active in the community. It comes natural to us.

GC LIVING: Have you always lived in Superior?

Mila Besich: I was married for a little while and my ex-husband was in the Navy, so life took me all over the place. I lived in Norfolk, Virginia, Camp Pendleton and San Diego, California. During our time in Camp Pendleton, I had the opportunity to start my own Military Spouse Virtual Assistant Business and that was the start of my company, Miracle Executive Services. When we received temporary orders to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, we ended up moving me and our children, Jose and Ashley, back to Superior. Prior to moving back to Superior, then-Mayor Michael Hing asked me to do some virtual work for his administration to help the Town, so it made sense to come back home.

GC LIVING: Did your kids grow up in Superior?

Mila Besich: Both of my kids graduated from Superior High School, my son in 2016 and my daughter in 2018. They are at ASU now, both recipients of one of Pinal County’s best programs, Promise for the Future. My son earned his associate degree from Central Arizona College, and my daughter used her Promise for the Future and then transferred over to ASU. We saw the opportunity for our kids to take some pressure off making sure they got a college education by staying in Pinal County. That was one of those selling points, to stay in Superior and Pinal County. In the end, we wanted our kids to grow up with the same connection to family and friends as we did. There is something special about that bond. There was that family connection, that strong community connection. No matter where we’ve been, Superior’s always been home.

GC LIVING: You’ve been involved with several organizations in Superior. What are some of the roles you’ve had?

Mila Besich: When I first started working for the Town, they needed somebody who could take minutes because they were in between clerks, and they had all these committees and everything was starting to ramp up in regards to the Resolution Copper project. They would call me on the speakerphone and I would listen to the meeting and transcribe the minutes and turn them around in 72 hours. When I moved back to Superior, there were plenty more projects to work on. It just continued from there. And I got involved with the Copper Corridor Economic Development Coalition, and now I am their contracted executive director. I’ve done everything from social media to marketing and training. I also sell advertising for the Copper Area News Publishers; ironically I worked for the newspaper in high school and I just did the local town reporting and things like that.

GC LIVING: You were on the school board before you were elected mayor, correct?

Mila Besich: I’m still on the school board but I’m not seeking another term. In December, I will have completed 10 years of board service at the Superior Unified School District.

GC LIVING: In 2013 you ran for the Town Council and in 2016 you ran for mayor. What were the thoughts behind that decision?

Mila Besich: I have always had a strong desire to serve my community. My term on the council was up and our mayor at the time was being recalled, this created an opportunity to run for Mayor. The town was going through a lot of very stressful situations, if the recall had enough signatures, there had to be someone to run for mayor. I was eligible to run for mayor because my term on the council was up. I thought if I’m going to do this, I need to do it now, Superior has a window. I know I’m up for the challenge.

Making the decision to run for Council and Mayor involved the blessing of my children and family. All of them were very supportive. I talked with my family and they said, “We support you. We think you’ll do a good job. You know what you’re getting yourself into. Go for it.”

I had a different obligation. I saw this as, “I’m not doing this just because I want to be the mayor. I’m doing this because I want to serve the people of my community. It became more about, “We need to make sure our town is running smoothly because we can’t survive let alone thrive without solid direction” The town has been incorporated since 1976 and I was the first female direct-elected mayor in Superior. My whole family came out for my swearing-in.

After the council meeting, my family came over for dinner. My cousin, who’s a forensic accountant and watched the audit presentation, said to me, “You do realize that the town is in debt to itself with an almost $3 million highway user fund imbalance? You have ADEQ ready to post-sanctions on your transfer station. You have a precarious relationship with the mining company that’s right on your doorstep, and you’re not going to get paid to do this job. We’re so proud of you, but are you crazy?” I said, “You know what? I’m not worried about it. I know we’re going to get through these things.”

GC LIVING: For a long period of time, the economy waxed and waned, depending on the mine. But there is a revitalization going on in Superior. And it’s more about tourism.

Mila Besich: It is about tourism, it’s about our proximity to Phoenix. We have a four-lane, divided highway, straight into downtown Phoenix. We have the best of both worlds. We can be in downtown Phoenix or Sky Harbor Airport in about an hour, it’s normally 5-8 degrees cooler than the Valley, even in the Summer. We have a lot to offer for those looking to move out of the city or just get away for the day. The Boyce Thompson Arboretum and the trails both in Town and on the Tonto National Forest add to the attractions and amenities of our community.

GC LIVING: Looking at some of the recent successes, the Magma Hotel reopened.

Mila Besich: Yes. The Magma Hotel reopened, and we’ve been very excited about that. And I have to credit that over the last decade, there’s been a whole crew of people promoting development … myself, the leaders over at the Chamber of Commerce. We started our Optimist Club and that’s something that I’m really proud of.

For me, the Optimist Club is great, because it’s got such great tenets, it’s kind of where I have my guiding principles in life. We’ve done so much with it. We give laptop computers to the honor roll students and we maintain this community tradition. I love that; that club exists in our community because I think that embodies the can-do spirit of Superior. The Optimist Club is always there to support all aspects of the community and I believe the start of that club in 2004 is what started the rebirth of Superior.

There is a whole team of people who make being mayor so much easier. And that’s our entire Council that stays invested with the work at hand, our staff at Town Hall; we’ve really invested in making sure they get training and they feel respected in their careers. To our Chamber of Commerce, which is constantly volunteering and developing events and activities, and they’re all volunteers, and they’re trying to get their stuff done, our Optimist Club, the school district, business community, our students and the youth, it takes all of us to keep Superior moving forward. My motto, “Together, We are Superior”.

GC LIVING: We’ve all faced challenges because of the pandemic. At the same time, we’ve experienced silver linings, too. What are some are yours?

Mila Besich: For me, the silver lining was the deep breath we all got to take. My schedule was at a pace that I’m not sure I would have adequately made it through. The pandemic created a pause to say, “You’re going to take a deep breath and going to take an assessment of everything that really has to be done and what is most important.” And while I haven’t liked the stress of the decisions, it has brought some attention to enjoying being home, really enjoying the quality time with my friends and my family and learning to really appreciate the little things in life.

It’s not about waiting for the big things to happen, it’s about enjoying that these little trips to a local farm, or enjoying the outdoors a little more, and even catching up with friends on Zoom calls all became more special. It’s about seeing things differently and trying to find the positive, I truly miss in-person meetings and seeing people regularly.

GC LIVING: Communities have short-term and long-term goals. What are some of the short-term; and what’s a long-term goal for you?

Mila Besich: Short-term is the full acquisition and completion of the multigenerational center, which will be placed in our original Superior High School. That’s a really exciting project and another silver lining out of the pandemic. We were slated to build the multi-gen center and the construction cost estimates came back so high, and that was in part due to COVID. We had the opportunity to talk with the owner of the original Superior High School building, Mr. Elijah Cardon, and he agreed to a price that we could put into our budget. I think that’s going to be our most immediate goal, to see that the acquisition completed and the upgrades that we’ll have to do. The multi-gen center will house our library, have a gymnasium open to the public, our senior center, and our Town Hall. And most importantly, it will include our entrepreneurial and innovation center. We have this entrepreneur development program with SEED SPOT, they are a nationally recognized program and most of their programs are offered free to local business owners and those who are interested in locating business in Superior.

That leads into the longer-term goal that Superior is a world-class community. It’s a town with a world-class arboretum, a world-class mine, and we want to be leading in entrepreneurial development. We have the opportunities to be leaders in plant-based science research due to the collections at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, that work can be part of the discussion on how climate change is affecting food systems, which was one of the original missions of the Arboretum. Colonel Boyce Thompson was talking about sustainability before it was a buzzword, we can continue to lead that discussion and impact the world.

Superior has always had a niche in mining technology and plant-based sciences. How do we hone in on those two things? Keeping our economic roots intact, but also, being open to diversification. The entrepreneurial and innovation center is part of that plan where we will have the space that includes adequate space for vocational training for skilled trades.

We would be able to do skills training such as welding, plumbing, electrical and automotive. We want the center to be that resource for the region. It can be that strong place with the home economics lab, that’s going to be part of our commercial kitchens. We’ve helped to incubate a lot of food-based entrepreneurs. That’s going to take us into that next iteration of ourselves by developing small businesses and seeing Superior grow.

GC LIVING: When you first took office, there were environmental issues with Resolution Copper. Have those been resolved?

Mila Besich: This is one of the biggest challenges for the Town. Superior will always have mining as part of our Economic DNA, but we have to mindful of the potential impacts that mining can and will have on our community. The Resolution Copper draft EIS (environmental impact statement) has been one of the most complex that’s been processed — ever. With that comes a lot of accountability on the part of the mine and the Town. One of the issues we’re experiencing right now is that the groundwater pumping and the loss of surface water flows to Queen Creek is affecting the current health of the Queen Creek watershed and it’s ecosystems.

When the EIS came out it determined that there were several areas the mine would need to provide mitigations on such as socioeconomic impacts, impacts to water and ensuring recreational access. We were pleased when it was determined that the tailings would not be constructed west of Superior near Queen Valley.

That’s why you want to have these environmental impact statements. This process is what evaluates everything you need to understand the socioeconomic impacts of opening a project like Resolution Copper. One of the things we learned right away was the way mines pay taxes. The money leapfrogs right over Superior and the actual tax benefit to Superior is much less than what the impacts are.

And that makes this a very complex process. When I’m working with Rio Tinto, the owner of Resolution Copper, and I’ve got a lot of people saying, “Well, how did you do this?” And I said, “This is an arranged marriage. They are not going anywhere. The Town is not going anywhere. So we have to learn to work together.” We have to be responsible to the fact that the way mining was done in the ‘50s and the ‘60s where families lived very close to where they worked, it created economic sustainability, that economic structure doesn’t exist now. For Superior to survive and diversify and to have tourism as an economic development growth sector, we cannot have one industry using up all the water or blighting the beautiful public land around us.

I credit Resolution Copper for establishing some good processes and there is some required mitigation. There will be a new campground and more trails built in the Tonto National Forest. But it’s complex. I knew building a strong relationship with the mine — a relationship that would benefit the residents and future generations of Superior — was important.

To me it’s an honor to be the mayor of Superior and carry forward this legacy. The weight of the decisions we make today will be something that three or four generations from now will look back on, hopefully positively. I can look back at various projects we’ve worked on, such as our downtown stage and amphitheater and the park and trails systems, and credit the vision to my predecessors who had the ideas. It’s been rewarding to take those projects and have the opportunity to bring them to life.

My goal in the end is to leave some good projects for somebody else to say, “Hey, I want to tweak this and make this work for us.” Part of being a good leader is leaving not only a legacy of what you accomplished, but leaving a vision for the future for somebody else to carry forward.

GC LIVING: You have been a frequent visitor at the State Capitol and the nation’s capital. Do you have political aspirations beyond Superior?

Mila Besich: My dad once told me, “Never say you’re never going to do something.” My focus right now is to be the best mayor Superior needs. We have a lot of work to do over the next four to eight years. Right now my heart and my passion is solely focused on Superior right now. I’ll keep the future under consideration.

GC LIVING: Is there anything you would like to invite the readers to come do in Superior on a day trip?

Mila Besich: Of course, there’s so much you can do. Come out to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum and the Wallace Garden, and then come into town, enjoy a delicious meal, do a wine tasting, and hike on our trails here in town. Take the hike up to the original US 60 tunnel that piece of trail was the first million-dollar-a-mile highway built in America.

Our events are going to come back in some type of fashion for 2021. Superior is a great place to come and physically distance. Our businesses are committed to safety. There’s something for every palate here — Italian food, Mexican food, Asian food, American burgers. We have something for everyone here. And stay in the Magma Hotel, make it an overnight trip. Come and check us out. We might be your next favorite place in Arizona.