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Getting Back to Basics 

As funding is chopped, the City Council tweaks its neighborhood and downtown reinvestment plan.

Back to Basics, City Hall's attempt to pour more money into downtown and long-neglected neighborhoods, is about to turn 6 years old. But after a $26.7 million spending spree, the trough has become more shallow.

By half.

And as members of the City Council--forced to accept cuts to balance a $945 million budget--are each handed $425,000 this year (down from $850,000 previously) to dole out to neighborhoods, homeowners and downtown investors, a review of Back to Basics exposes some deficiencies.

Only now has work started on a guide with application rules and restrictions for grant seekers. In the past, some nonprofits have been allowed to skirt city regulations by doing construction work and upgrades--and then asking for a Back to Basics grant retroactively to pay for the work. Additionally, federal guidelines on the portion of Back to Basics money that comes from Community Development Block Grants are not always spelled out. Red tape created by a host of city agencies has delayed the issuing of awards--by up to three years, in one case.

Republican Mayor Bob Walkup directs most of his allocation to stimulate downtown revitalization. A review of county records shows that the city has been blind, in at least two cases this year, to recipients who have delinquent property tax bills.

Finally, major city grants to revitalize the Fox Tucson Theatre have rekindled painful memories for some African Americans whose access to the Fox was once restricted.

After the program's first five years, it's a good time to examine Back to Basics and what's gone well, what hasn't gone well and what needs tinkering.


WHAT'S GONE WELL

PILOTED IN SEPTEMBER 1997 by then-City Manager Luis Gutierrez and then-Mayor George Miller, a Democrat, Back to Basics was developed in more flush times.

Gutierrez, a longtime resident of inner-city Barrio San Antonio, wanted to fix streets, patch sidewalks, install streetlights and do a little sprucing up.

There was, at times, unwarranted optimism. Gutierrez expressed his hope to link with a portion of Pima County bonds--$10 million approved by voters in 1997--that could be used to match city money in some neighborhoods. But the county's Community Reinvestment bond program lagged so badly that the first sale of bonds, for $1 million, was diverted to road projects.

Nevertheless, Back to Basics was a politician's wet dream: Access in the first five years to $850,000 annually to hand out to constituent groups or constituents without having to shop for votes at the council dais.

With the grants, some neighborhoods have gained tangible improvements to parks, streets and homes. Just as important has been the ability of the Back to Basics process--driven by grassroots efforts--to unite neighborhoods, as was done in a previously divided Barrio Anita, northwest of downtown.

It has helped longtime downtown business owners and nouveau speculators.

A good program?

"Absolutely," said Steve Leal, a Democrat who has represented southside Ward 5 since 1989. "It's not just about putting in a sidewalk or three trees or a light in an alley. If used correctly, it is empowering. It allows you to go in and have a neighborhood plan what it wants, do it, and make an experiential difference. It should be $1.2 million per ward."

Leal, an Oakland, Calif., native who is the council's senior member, also sees Back to Basics as an equalizer in two ways.

"All these neighborhoods have subsidized sprawl and development on the fringe for decades," said Leal. "It is a little social and economic justice."

It also has put more money in the accounts of council offices that Leal said are closer to ward needs and better equipped to respond.

It is the latter that makes Back to Basics one of the undercurrents in the ongoing power struggle that the council's Opposition Party--Leal and Democrats José Ibarra and Shirley Scott--has with City Manager James Keene.

Given his tenure, Leal is not easily shocked. But he was floored by Keene's suggestion that it's a mistake for council members to have aides, proposing that money and staff instead be shifted to forces under Keene's command.

Back to Basics, Leal said, helped keep Keene out of the way and allowed council members to respond directly to constituents.

Such was the case for Ward 3 Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar, a Republican, who was forced to play a Back to Basics card to offset action by city administration.

After mounting a successful campaign to rid some Ward 3 neighborhoods--Balboa Heights, Ocotillo and Miracle Manor--of dopers, whores and their trade, Ward 3 saw its effective tool--police bike patrols--moved to downtown last year.

The move was instigated by Walkup to make a show of more coverage for Rio Nuevo, the still-dormant downtown revitalization project.

Dunbar protested the shift, and this year tapped Back to Basics money to supplement police budgets for the bike patrol. Dunbar put $50,000 of Back to Basics cash into bike equipment and uniforms.

"This accomplished that goal," said Belinda Fleming, a Dunbar aide who spoke for the vacationing councilwoman.

But even despite the best efforts and intentions of the elected officials, Back to Basics grants have occasionally caused unforeseen problems. For example, Councilwoman Carol West inherited a project from fellow Democrat Janet Marcus in the Vista del Sahuaro neighborhood in Ward 2 that was designed to clamp down on unruly traffic. The project, particularly an unsightly and oversized median, caused a border war with an adjoining neighborhood.


WHAT HASN'T GONE WELL

DOWNTOWN HAS BEEN the focus for Back to Basics for Walkup and, for a time, Republican Councilman Fred Ronstadt. Walkup has put 90 percent of his share downtown. In session and in the community, Walkup has consistently reasoned that he puts his share of Back to Basics money downtown because it transcends wards.

Leal has been advocate for downtown, particularly the Arts District, while on the council and before. Still, he said, that money can't be blindly diverted downtown from the wards.

"We were all assured that we won't drain services or resources, including Back to Basics, to hasten Rio Nuevo," Leal said.

In elected office for the first time and now trying to fend off a challenge from Tom Volgy, the Democratic mayor from 1987 through 1991, Walkup has been refreshingly nonpartisan in his allocations.

One grant that stands out is the $70,000 in Back to Basics money that went to fancy up the façade of the International Order of Odd Fellows Hall at 135 S. Sixth Ave. The building, which houses Etherton Gallery, Barrio Grill and the photo studios of Tim Fuller, is owned by a partnership that Fuller and his wife Robin Hiller have with sculptor Barbara Grygutis and her husband Larry Evers, head of English at the University of Arizona.

Hiller worked for Walkup's 1999 rival, former two-term Democratic Councilwoman Molly McKasson. Fuller shot all the important McKasson photos. Walkup didn't hold that against the Odd Fellows facelift, nor could he expect to make political conversions.

There are longtime downtowners on the Back to Basics list. Johnny Gibson, the strongman/bodybuilder/barber, and his family landed a $60,000 Back to Basics grant that will help transform the Gibson property from 11 S. Sixth to 33 S. Sixth St. into a pedestrian-styled mall.

Recipients also include Doug Biggers. A downtown promoter as the co-founder of the Tucson Weekly, he became a player with a chunk of the proceeds he took from the sale of The Weekly more than three years ago. The Rialto Block cost $800,000, according to county real estate records.

Biggers, also a staunch McKasson promoter, scored a $150,000 Back to Basics grant--one of the largest--for the Rialto Block Historic Preservation Project in the 300 block of East Congress Street.

But there's a problem: Some take the government Back to Basics money while their property taxes go unpaid.

Biggers owed $8,226 in property taxes and interest for the Rialto Block. The taxes became delinquent on May 1, according to records in the county Treasurer's Office.

New delinquent notices were to be sent early this week, just in time for Biggers to receive when he returned from vacation in California.

"We talked with Doug, and he says the taxes have been paid," Walkup said on July 25.

He hadn't paid.

Biggers said, also on July 25, that after making his investment in downtown and pledging a match to the Back to Basics grant, the delinquent tax was an issue that did not belong in The Weekly.

"I don't think it's germane. I'm six weeks behind," Biggers said. "I've been out of town for three of those weeks; my property on Mount Lemmon burned; and it will be paid by the time this story comes out. I forgot to pay them. I'll take care of it. If you think it's important, knock yourself out."

On July 29, Biggers paid the bill. The taxes, according to the county Treasurer's Office, were more than 12 weeks late.

It should be noted that Biggers was not late on his tax bill at the time the Back to Basics grant was awarded, something both he and Walkup pointed out. It's also worth noting that Biggers has not received the money yet.

"I've run into delays," Biggers said. Some of that has been because of the complications from the slow process of historic tax credits.

Walkup also directed $40,000 in Back to Basics for façade work at Phil Levkowitz's Musicland and Chicago Store. More than $11,767 in property taxes--including half due last November, before the grant was awarded--is due on the property.


THE RIALTO THEATRE WAS ON life support until it emerged from bankruptcy and conquered, with a personal loan from Biggers, a balloon payment. It has finally shed the red tape the city wound around it almost as soon as it was awarded a $61,000 Back to Basics grant.

The money is for a marquee that will cost around $120,000. Another $80,000 is going for the facelift for the concert hall that Biggers once championed as the workhorse venue.

Biggers has split bitterly from the Rialto boys, Paul Bear Barrington and Jeb Schoonover, and now is complaining that the marquee will cause harm to his property, according to city officials.

John Updike, the city's main man on Rio Nuevo, said the issues were explored by city staff, which felt Barrington had the right to construct the marquee. The matter, Updike said, is "essentially a neighbor squabble that we hope can be worked out."

Biggers said he wants Barrington to comply with an easement that states the marquee be the same size as the original. The dispute? Which is the original: one from the 1920s or a larger one from the 1940s?

For nearly three years, Barrington has smiled with the big, fake Back to Basics check--a tease from the city that he could not cash. Bankruptcy proceedings were one cause for delay, as were the protracted efforts to settle the mortgage payment.

Other delays seemed illogical. Suits in the city attorney's office fretted that the marquee would be improper because it is a sign promoting events at private business.

If that's the case, as Barrington and others explained, the city had to ready its crews to take down marquees and signs at properties, including the Fox, that were aided by Back to Basics money.

Then came more city nervousness about how the Rialto marquee will extend over the Congress right of way. The solution, to extend the sidewalk and slightly push traffic away from the building, was delayed when city officials didn't like a bench on the sidewalk.

The irony is that a generally positive story that contained a few complaints by Barrington about Back to Basics in the tax-subsidized Downtown Tucsonan--the organ of the Tucson Downtown Alliance--is the likely reason that the city finally handed over the money to the Rialto several weeks ago. Biggers is a member of the Alliance's Board of Directors.

Updike said Barrington "needed to be patient" while the city made sure all issues, including legal questions, were resolved.

Work is underway on the Rialto sidewalk and preparation for the marquee. The Rialto, Barrington said, has survived fierce battles over ownership, loans and bankruptcy. City officials keen on Rio Nuevo and luring spenders downtown should realize that the Rialto draws 100,000 people a year to its shows.

"And those are people from all over town," Barrington said. "They are not the same people."


WHAT NEEDS TINKERING

TO THE WEST, AT THE Fox--with its powerful board full of Tucson luminaries--the doors are not likely to open for a year to 16 months.

When they do, Tucson African-Americans will be able to take seats they were denied during the Fox's heyday.

The Fox was segregated. People of color were shooed upstairs if allowed in at all.

It is a bitter memory for many, said Clarence Boykins, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Tucson.

Some believe that the celebration of the Fox, with the nearly $4 million in public money that will be poured into it, is a glorification of that segregation.

Boykins, a longtime city of Tucson executive who has been assigned to procurement, the Tucson Convention Center, and economic development, grew up in segregated Miami. The decision of the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization, to have its annual convention there this year illustrates on a grand scale what can be done at the Fox on a local scale.

"We do not refuse to go there," Boykins said.

But there must be testimony to the segregation at the Fox, Boykins said. That could include a plaque or memorial signifying that era and what was overcome.

Ben Buehler-Garcia, president of the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation, said he is sensitive to the memories of those shut out at the Fox and the history of the theater that matched the history of Tucson and many other cities.

"I faced segregation in Mexico because of my Protestant father," Garcia said. "In Oaxaca, I didn't know why the priests would spit on the sidewalk and cross the street. Restoring the Fox to the grandeur of the 1930s does not include segregated seating."

A goal of the renovation is a "physical manifestation that bridges the historical gaps in generations," said Garcia, who requests that the afflicted contact him to discuss those matters and to offer suggestions.

Walkup has met with some of the people who were allowed only upstairs at the Fox.

"There are a number of people who still have very hard feelings," Walkup said.

In consultation with Boykins and Chuck Ford, a retired school principal who was the last African-American to serve on the City Council, Walkup said that he will ensure that Fox's opening ceremonies include those shut out during the earlier era of the Fox and "celebrate that we are smarter now."

For Back to Basics, there are other smarter methods that need to be instituted.

Staff, Walkup said, will be asked to "get authorization" that taxes are current on eligible properties. Grants cannot be used, Walkup added, to pay off taxes; the funds can be spent only on certified capital projects.

For the fiscal year that began July 1, Back to Basics will include only money from the city's share of state gasoline taxes, distributed from the state's Highway User Revenue Fund, and from federal Community Development Block Grant monies. Money from the sales- and property-tax supported general fund has been shut down.

Councilmembers Dunbar and West noted at a recent City Council review of Back to Basics that the strings have been tightened on all allocations. It will mean, they said, closer adherence to the city's procurement standards. In the case of gas taxes, projects will have to be related to streets and traffic, although there remains some play through such categories as right-of-way acquisition.

And West said that in the case of federal CDBG shares, compliance with the wage-scale provisions of the Davis-Bacon Act must be spelled out and met. Work that uses the federal block grants must use workers paid at prevailing and higher scales. That has not always been fully explained, West said, and this has led to understated project estimates and busted budgets.

West is looking to simplify and get more personal with the assistance offered by her office. She said she will concentrate on directing grants this year to rehabilitate the homes of low-income seniors and families, particularly in cases where the homes have been damaged by termites.

But giving money to the deserving isn't always easy. Leal wanted to direct a grant to the Tucson Urban League or Chicanos Por La Causa to help a longtime constituent targeted by city building inspectors who happened upon his property one day.

This upset Leal, although he remains one of Back to Basic's biggest proponents.

"Here's a guy who is on a fixed income yet maintains his home and yard beautifully," Leal said. "He's out watering his roses, and the inspectors get the wrong address but announce that since they are there, they will cite him for a violation because they say his carport extends too close to the property line. Mind you, there has been no complaint and you can't see the carport from the street. I know our office can't help directly--it would violate the gift clause of the state Constitution. But we could help the man through one of the nonprofits, (but) the city says 'no.'

"Yet downtown, private businesses get direct grants," Leal said. "That's where Back to Basics needs to be fixed. It has been hijacked from the neighborhoods it was meant to help and turned into political patronage for business."

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