Give or Take

Rio Nuevo remains alive at the Legislature, but the City Council's plans may be jeopardizing its survival

When it comes to Rio Nuevo, it sometimes seems as if the Tucson City Council can't do anything right.

The latest dust-up came last week, when the morning daily featured a brief report noting that the city had accelerated work on the Mission Gardens, a $3 million project to re-create a small collection of trees and plants near the Convento site at the base of "A" Mountain. The garden, which is being paid for with Rio Nuevo dollars, should be completed later this year.

When Republicans at the Arizona Legislature--who have been critical of the city's lack of progress on downtown revitalization, despite tens of millions of dollars in expenses--heard that $3 million was being spent on a garden, some of them hit the roof. Rep. John Kavanagh, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee who hails from Fountain Hills, told the morning daily that he believed the project should be "euthanized."

Rep. Frank Antenori of District 30 also doesn't mince words when talking about the City Council's approach to downtown redevelopment.

"Rio Nuevo, to me, is dead," Antenori says.

Or, at least the city's vision for Rio Nuevo is dead. Antenori, a Republican in his first term in the House, says that he will continue to try to preserve downtown revitalization funding--which comes from a diversion of state sales taxes--for an expansion of the Tucson Convention Center and infrastructure to help build a downtown hotel.

"If they don't agree to that, we're done," Antenori says. "The money is gone."

Ward 1 City Councilwoman Regina Romero, a Democrat who represents the westside, says the work on Mission Gardens is designed to wrap up a project that began earlier this year.

"It was one of the projects that was engineered and ready to go," says Romero. "It was part of the entire plan since 1999. ... We would not want to start a project and not finish it."

But Antenori isn't persuaded that the garden project is a smart use of Rio Nuevo funds.

"I hear about the Mission Gardens... and I just don't think they get it," Antenori says. "We were trying to help them. You would think they would realize that it's in the best interest of everyone to make something happen."

Antenori complains that by continuing to spend money on small projects, the city could be dooming Rio Nuevo.

"Three million dollars for this, $2 million for that, and it's going to screw over the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue that they could have brought in," Antenori says. "The short-sightedness is screwing over, literally, the entire southern part of the state right now."

While she wants to see the Mission Gardens completed, Romero says she agrees with lawmakers who say the Rio Nuevo focus should be on the downtown hotel and Convention Center expansion.

But she adds that Rio Nuevo funds will also be needed for a bridge over the Santa Cruz River between Congress and 22nd streets that will carry cars, pedestrians and downtown's new urban streetcar to the westside, where a museum complex may someday be built. (For now, those cultural facilities remain on hold as the city and its partners--including the University of Arizona, which recently announced it was suspending work on a long-planned science center--reconsider their financial options.)

Romero says the bridge is vital to the residential and commercial development planned on the westside.

"The bridge is connecting pedestrians, traffic and the streetcar so we can move people from the Convention Center to the retail over here, to the residential over here, to the gem show on the westside," Romero says.

The bridge will cost $12 million, which could come from Rio Nuevo and/or federal funds, according to Tucson Transportation Department spokesman Michael Graham, who says that the city is now spending $1.6 million in Rio Nuevo dollars to design the project. The city hopes to have the bridge completed before the 2011 gem show.

State Sen. Jonathan Paton of District 30, who is working out the details of a reform plan that would create a new Rio Nuevo oversight committee appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, says he believes that his colleagues can still be persuaded to allow Tucson to keep the Rio Nuevo funding.

"I've learned at the Legislature that anything is possible," Paton says. "If the city can stay out of the newspapers until the end of the session, I think there's a good chance we can save something."

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