On Bonds

A review of 2004 voter-approved projects shows both successes and notable setbacks

A recently compiled Pima County report contains an impressive list of projects successfully completed thanks to 2004 general-obligation bond funds.

Unfortunately, the report is a bit misleading.

One project shown as completed is the $682,000 rehabilitation of the Tucson Performing Arts Center on South Sixth Avenue. Five years ago, voters were told funds would "provide a suitable venue in an historic neighborhood for emerging theatre groups and performing artists."

Despite what is stated in the report about the project's completion, the rehabilitation work at the center is nowhere near finished.

"The building is structurally stable," says Howard Dutt of the Tucson Parks and Recreation Department, the agency responsible for the center. "But building-code improvements need to be made."

Dutt mentions that both the electrical system and the roof need to be replaced.

In addition, an architectural analysis done on the property contains a total of 21 exterior and 23 interior improvements which should be addressed. These include work on the heating and cooling system and the remodeling of toilets to meet disability standards.

"We're asking Pima County for $1.9 million to finish the work," says Dutt, who suggests that those additional dollars could come from another bond election or some other source. "We'll have to leave the building closed up until we can make those improvements."

The ongoing saga of the building began 90 years ago, when it was constructed as part of downtown's All Saints Church. In 1990, the city of Tucson bought the property, intending to use it as a 250-seat theater.

The Performing Arts Center opened in October 1992. But the $1 million spent on building repairs around that time wasn't sufficient to keep it open. Eight years after its debut, the center closed because of structural problems. At that time, it was estimated that to reopen the theater, another $1.8 million would be needed to pay for both structural and theatrical upgrades. But that figure has since been proven to be too low.

"We included (the 2004 bond funding) to at least make the building safe," says Linda Mayro of Pima County. "But we knew it wasn't enough money from the start."

Mayro recalls that in 2004, it was estimated that $1 million more would be needed to reopen the center. "I'm hoping that's still about the same," she adds. Of course, Dutt thinks almost twice that amount will be required.

"In hindsight, maybe we should have done (all the work at once on the center)," says attorney Larry Hecker, chair of the Pima County Bond Advisory Committee.

Additional financing for the center could depend upon a follow-up county bond election, something which likely won't happen until November 2010. Even then, Hecker acknowledges, passage of more general-obligation bonds isn't a given, thanks to concerns including "uncertainty over the economy, and a general election with a complex ballot."

Another obstacle could be the lack of visible progress on constructing a new justice court/municipal court complex at Stone and Toole avenues. Funded with $76 million in 2004 bond money, the site for this high-profile project today sits vacant, and implementation of the project is listed as "on hold."

"(Construction costs are) significantly above the original estimate, for a variety of reasons," Hecker says. "Our hope was to identify other sources of funding, such as user fees and a parking structure to keep (the bond fund cost) down as much as possible. In hindsight, maybe we should have gone with a larger amount."

Although no construction work has actually been done on the court complex, almost $26 million has been spent. This sum includes close to $13 million for archeological work on cemeteries located on the site.

Because of its high cost, Hecker indicates the courts complex may be another project which will have to wait for the next successful county bond election before moving forward.

The 2004 general obligation package contained dozens of projects and was intended as a 12-year program. So far, about 60 percent of the $582 million in authorized bonds have been sold, with the latest $73 million sale occurring a few weeks ago at a 3.9 percent interest rate.

Despite the examples of the Performing Arts Center and the courts complex, Hecker says he is generally pleased with the implementation of the 2004 bond package. He specifically mentions the work being done at historic Fort Lowell and at the Brandi Fenton Memorial Park on the north side of town.

"Things seem to be progressing," he says. "In driving around town, I'm seeing projects under construction, and it reminds me of the importance of having an aggressive bond program. Substantial progress has been made. But you're never happy until it's all done."

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