Coming Attractions?

REPRESENTATIVES OF FOUR museums have been meeting for several years in hopes of getting their projects on the Rio Nuevo agenda. Only two of them already exist, the Arizona Historical Society and Flandrau Planetarium and Science Center. Both want to construct larger quarters at Rio Nuevo, and Flandrau would metamorphose into a broader science museum called the Universe of Discovery.

The other two, the Sonoran Sea Aquarium and the National Museum of the American West, as of yet exist only on paper. The aquarium hopes to go in on the east side of the river, south of a projected new visitors' center, while the western museum would join the two others on the west bank of the Santa Cruz.

"Clustered museums are a good idea," says Bill Buckingham, director of Flandrau. "A mother and daughter might go to a science center, while Daddy and the boys want to look at fish and historical stuff. People don't need to drive around...Right now, from an outsider's perspective, there's no reason to go downtown. We'd draw large numbers of people downtown. If you want major meals, you'd have to do downtown, go across the river. This will bring wallets to downtown."

City Councilman Fred Ronstadt, however, predicts that "the museums may generate local traffic for a few years," but that people will eventually stop coming, especially without major retail at Rio Nuevo to attract them. Right now, he says, his constituents tell him they rarely go to Reid Park Zoo or to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, attractions Tucson already has.

If Proposition 400 passes, each of the museums has to undertake a giant fundraising campaign in order to qualify for TIF money. Though the proportions vary somewhat for each, they roughly must raise money in a 2-to-1 match, doubling in advance whatever seed money they're allotted from the Rio Nuevo district. If they can't raise their own cash, they can't get the TIF money. Critics believe that this set-up makes for a few too many museum directors going a-begging for money in one town, while supporters believe the staggered construction schedule will alleviate the problem. Plus, the museum reps says they will be hustling donations and grants outside of Tucson as well. For their operating budgets they're on their own.

Here's some info on each museum:

· Arizona Historical Society. The problem with the charming AHS museum on Second Street, just west of the UA, says director Jerry Kyle, is that, "We are absolutely squeezed." AHS now houses not only 27,000 square feet in galleries, but also the society's vast artifact storage areas, archives, research library and offices. All exhibitions would move to the 44,000 square feet of galleries in the new building, while storage, administration and the library would stay back on Second Street. The freed-up space would allow Kyle once again to aggressively pursue new collections, an activity he says has been much curtailed in recent years.

The new museum would offer up "totally public programming space. It will have exhibits of the social history of Arizona from the beginning of written history to the present. It will be all changing exhibits." Right now Kyle exhibits only about 7 percent of the total collection at one time. The new place likely would push that figure up to 25 percent. Because the new museum would be plain exhibition space, it would be the cheapest of the group to build. Estimated price tag is $12 million, divided up between TIF money and museum-raised donations. Plus, AHS gets regular subsidies from the state.

His other advantage, Kyle notes, is "We exist. I have a staff and artifacts. We have the commitment (from the city) to be the first museum (on the Rio Nuevo side of the river)...We could break ground in 18 months."

· Sonoran Sea Aquarium. Board president Shannan Marty inevitably gets asked two questions: Why put fish in the desert? And how much water would you use? Marty's answers are practiced. The Gulf of California is not that far away, she says,"only 60 miles as the crow flies," and the aquarium would feature only animals that live there. The closest ocean to Tucson, it's the second most diverse worldwide in terms of its wildlife, its 10,000 species putting it just behind the first-ranked Red Sea. And those fish are being threatened by wide-scale commercial fishing. A few years back, Marty and some diving pals decided that education, in the form of an aquarium, would be at least one antidote to the environmental destruction.

Plus, she adds, the aquarium fits in with historic Rio Nuevo. "Indians traded with the gulf; archaeological digs here find shells. And the Spaniards came up that way."

As for water, the aquarium would have a couple of tanks of 100,000 gallons each, several at 25,000 gallons and a number of others smaller than that. "The reality is that it's like a few swimming pools inside, and being inside we lose less water to evaporation. It's about 1/100th of the amount of water a golf course uses."

Marty estimates the opening costs at about $32 million, a figure that counts the expense of constructing the building, which would measure 65,000 to 70,000 square feet, as well as building the tanks, harvesting the fish and paying animal caretakers for about six months before opening day. The city projects a TIF allotment of $10 million. The board plans on getting about $10 to $12 million through debt financing, and the rest through fundraising, which was begun a year ago.

"We could break ground next year," she says. (The city expects it to be the first construction project on the east side of the river.)

Like Buckingham, Marty sees her project as an "economic generator" for downtown. Located near the Tucson Convention Center, it would attract tourists and locals both, she says, pointing to the successful 2-year-old aquarium in Albuquerque. And its fish enthusiasts have already begun their volunteer labors: "We've been doing education in the schools for two years."

· Universe of Discovery. Flandrau Planetarium and Science Center has operated for 25 years on the increasingly crowded UA campus. Director Buckingham says his motivation for moving is two-fold: "to significantly increase the amount of space for exhibitions and programs, and to have a place that's more accessible to a larger community, one that would be easier to find and easier to find parking."

Flandrau now has 2,600 square feet of space, but it's shared with a UA space lab and a mineral museum. Buckingham is looking at 100,000 square feet for the new place, featuring an all-new planetarium, a separate gallery for preschoolers, and halls devoted to astronomy, chemistry, computers and so on. Buckingham estimates a total $40 million cost, an expense jacked up by the price of a new planetarium and new exhibits to replace those worn out by 25 years of kids pulling their cranks and levers. The museum will continue to get an operating subsidy from the university, and Buckingham said he'll be tapping national corporate donors who regularly contribute to science education projects. Right now, Flandrau makes up 60 percent of its operating budget from admissions and store sales, 40 percent from university money.

Some Tucsonans have questioned whether the removal of Flandrau, a popular neighborhood and school draw, is a sign the university is abandoning a valuable community mission. Not so, says Buckingham: the university will still be involved and the larger place will allow the museum to serve more kids. Plus, he sees the Universe of Discovery as a boon to downtown at night: it likely will be open 'til about 9 each evening.

· National Museum of the American West. Organizers of this project hope to capitalize on a program by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Awash in more artifacts than it can ever hope to display, the Smithsonian has embarked on an ambitious plan to lend these pieces to local institutions all over the country, provided they meet certain strict conditions. Tucsonan Paul Lindsey, who's president of the museum authority representing all four aspiring museums, hopes to draw on its collections documenting the history of the West.

"Probably one-third (of the stored items) have to do with the growth and development of the West," Lindsey says. "The museum would cover the last 150 years of the American West, not just Arizona."

The museum would showcase the history of the railroads, mines, the Gold Rush, Mexican settlement, the Wild West and a host of other topics. Popular as the image of the Old West is, Lindsey believes the museum would be an international attraction. The museum building would run about 70,000 square feet, divided into two levels. Estimated costs are $30 to $40 million.

But Lindsey finds himself in a Catch-22. He's been in discussions for several years with the city, but he can't move beyond the exploratory phase with the Smithsonian until he has a definite site. "The Smithsonian says, 'When you get further along we'll talk.' " And the Rio Nuevo district would want concrete commitments from the Smithsonian before inking any contracts. Lindsey worries that the TIF funding might be all doled out by the time the National Museum's turn comes around. Right now his museum is alluded to only in a category of "other museums" in the city's list of Rio Nuevo projects. Still, he supports Proposition 400, even if his project never benefits from it.

"At least we're bringing the TIF money back to museums," he says. "Otherwise it would go to hockey stadiums."

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