Downtown Discord

Critics of the Tucson Downtown Alliance say the organization's too close to City Manager James Keene

Enmeshed in controversy over its finances and staffing shortly after it was created six years ago, the Tucson Downtown Alliance has recently found itself in hot water again.

This time, the organization--which was established to promote and improve downtown--is being criticized for its close ties to City Manager James Keene and his staff.

"They're like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy," says City Councilmember Steve Leal, referring to the long-ago ventriloquist and his stage dummy. "The alliance is so dependent on nurturing the relationship with the city staff for funding, it's problematic."

Howard Greenseth, who has served on numerous city committees focused on implementing downtown projects, agrees, "The appearance is the alliance is working as a quasi-governmental agency of the city manager's office. That's very dangerous."

Critics of the alliance point out that almost half of its annual budget of $700,000 comes from the city, under an agreement that runs through 2008. The balance of the money flows mostly from improvement district assessments on other downtown property owners.

Leal believes the organization must comply with Keene's dreams for downtown. If they don't, he thinks it will pay a heavy price in funding cuts.

"They know Keene is vindictive and retaliates," Leal says.

Opponents of the organization also stress that the alliance shares building space with the city's Rio Nuevo office and has two Tucson city staff members, along with a pair of representatives from the City Council, on its 36-member board of directors.

Both Greenseth and Leal are especially critical of the role the Downtown Alliance played in trying to persuade the City Council to move the proposed new Greyhound Bus station away from the corner of Sixth and Toole avenues. The issue has been contentious for months (See "Leave the Driving to Us," Jan. 22), argued between those who think the bus station should be located next to downtown's train depot, and those like Keene and the alliance, who want it near Interstate 10.

At one point during the debate, the alliance proposed moving both the bus station and the Ronstadt Transit Center, now on Congress Street, to property several blocks away, adjacent to the Tucson Convention Center. So far, however, that idea has gone nowhere.

Greenseth is particularly frustrated by the city's failure to obtain public input about the Greyhound issue until the last minute. Instead, city staff members initially held private meetings with alliance representatives and others, including Greenseth. It was only after the council had voted to pursue an I-10 site for the new bus station that public meetings were arranged.

"Not only the alliance calls the shots about how downtown will be developed," says Greenseth.

Leal focuses his attention on charges that the alliance thought the bus station should be moved because they didn't want poor people downtown.

"In the Greyhound case," he says, "they systematically engaged in an assault on working families. It was disingenuous and mean spirited." But, Leal says, "The number of people who saw through their charade was very heartening."

Donovan Durband, executive director of the alliance since May 2001, has heard those allegations before and calls them a smear campaign.

"We've not done anything like that," he says, "but they're just throwing mud, hoping it sticks." Durband says the group is proud of its position on the Greyhound issue, and adds, "We won't back down just because our motives are being questioned."

Concerning the relationship between the alliance and the city manager's office, Durband responds: "We don't take directions from him. We try to disagree diplomatically and have to consider our disagreements carefully. That doesn't prevent our disagreeing. No one from the city says, 'Don't take that position.'"

Banker Harold Prasatik, president of the alliance's board of directors, also stresses that when an issue concerning the city is voted on, the municipal representatives abstain.

"We don't feel pressure (from the city)," Prasatik says. "We all vote with an independent mind."

When asked what the alliance's recent accomplishments have been, Durband listed a litany of projects, including arranging for a $300,000 master planning process for five blocks of Congress Street. Scheduled to begin soon, this effort will look at infrastructure, parking and potential amenities along the street.

Durband also hopes to publish a new guide of downtown businesses this fall, and to launch an event similar to the once popular Downtown Saturday Night. Durband says he anticipates that the program--to be funded with $50,000 provided by the city to a subsidiary of the alliance--will begin in October.

In addition to those steps, Durband points out the alliance's role in the Talk of the Town building demolition dispute on Congress Street. In the wake of that controversy, he says he is pushing for a community dialogue and new inventory of downtown's historic resources.

Durband calls other alliance successes "pretty mundane stuff," including its security and sidewalk cleaning programs. While proud of those efforts, Durband has special praise for the Downtown Tucsonan, the group's monthly newspaper (which sometimes publishes articles by me and other Weekly contributors).

For his part, Leal is singularly unimpressed by the newspaper. Calling it a shill for the city manager's views of downtown, the southside councilmember says, "The newspaper is another propaganda arm (of Keene's office). Any trace of objectivity is gone. The city is trying to manufacture consent through it."

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