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The Tucson Indian Center is moving--and has big plans for a proposed Rio Nuevo project

The Tucson Indian Center serves the eight-largest urban Indian population in the country--more than 18,000 people, an important group in Tucson, both in socioeconomic and cultural terms.

Started in 1962, the Indian Center opened up in a former Tucson bar as a social club. Since then, the Indian Center has made several moves. Now at 705 N. Main Ave., the Indian Center this month is moving again, into the former federal building at 97 E. Congress Street. The focus of the Indian Center--with 25 paid staffers and an annual budget of close to $1.5 million--has shifted from a social outlet to providing educational and employment opportunities, including the annual Job Fair (which was held on Feb. 25 at the Tucson Convention Center). With all these activities, the Indian Center simply grew out of their Main Avenue location.

But the Indian Center is also planning to make one more move: to the $750 million Rio Nuevo project west of the Santa Cruz River, a new American Indian Social and Cultural Center.

"We most likely won't break ground for five years," says Jacob Bernal, executive director of the Tucson Indian Center, who did a "gap analysis" to determine the holes in local service and cultural needs.

The banks of the Santa Cruz seems appropriate for the Indian Center, since it's the site of Hohokam and other tribal settlements dating back 3,000 years.

The planned cultural center would offer more social and cultural programs to Tucson's urban Indians, including a drop-in center and more public cultural events to promote downtown. A museum is planned, as well as a gift shop and wellness center.

"It may be two separate buildings," says Bernal, "because the mix of people who need wellness services and social services probably wouldn't be a good mix with the cultural tourism aspects."

The City's Rio Nuevo Master Plan earmarked "Lot #6" of the Cultural Park (a bit more than one acre just south of West Congress Street) for the Indian Center, as well as a $500,000 line-item for construction from Tax Incremental Funding (TIF).

"So for now, they have a line-item for that, but there's no guarantee it's going to be there, because there are so many variables," says Bernal.

With those variables--including changes at Rio Nuevo and a new Rio Nuevo director expected to by hired within months--the Indian Center is hoping not to be left out of the cultural mix.

"There is still a place held for the Tucson Indian Center," says Karen Thoreson, assistant city manager and acting director of Rio Nuevo. "It's down the road, but we've got a 10-year district, so we've got 10 years' worth of ability to do stuff with TIF funding."

The Ford Foundation had paid for the Indian Center's staffers to fly to New York twice in the last year to submit a $37,000 grant proposal for a planning and feasibility study. That study would have answered pressing questions: Should the Indian Center have a museum? Should it have a gift shop? Should it be one large building or two separate adjacent buildings dividing the social services and cultural tourism aspects? How much will it cost? Who will be involved as partners?

But the Indian Center heard last month that it didn't get the $37,000 grant. Still, the proposed American Indian Social and Cultural Center is far from dead.

"Technically, the answer is they did not fund our business plan, but they did say they would go over the proposal with us and see where we go from here," says Bernal.

And after the business plan comes the capital campaign. But with local and state tribes, some of whom have casinos, supporting the project, there may be no problem getting the construction money when the time comes to break ground.

In the meantime, the Indian Center will get comfortable in their new Congress Street digs while planning continues on the next phase of the Rio Nuevo project.

"We've got the community's blessing, and now we have to crunch the numbers and do a business plan," says Bernal. "We are still going to proceed with or without Ford."

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