Political Theatrics

City Council criticisms of the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation don't make any sense after examining the facts

The first time I toured the Fox Tucson Theatre, a little more than five years ago, I almost passed out from the stench.

The decaying flesh of pigeons, along with human excrement left behind by homeless residents during the 25 years of abandonment, combined in an odor of exquisite putrefaction. And the artifacts left behind by animal and human wayfarers--feathers, bird skeletons, clothing--made it treacherous to walk.

There was no electricity, either, but if you looked hard enough, you could still catch a glimmer of the theatre's former magnificence. An astonishing Southwest Deco mural in jewel-like abstractions in teal and gold covered the giant ceiling; an enormous crystal chandelier dangled down. Gleaming fluted columns rose along the walls, and traces of mosaic tile designs decorated the entranceway. Twelve hundred seats faced the big stage, as though awaiting the next show.

An ambitious nonprofit group calling itself the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation had just bought the decayed 1929 movie palace on Congress Street, with plans to restore it to its art deco glory. The nonprofit, led by Executive Director Herb Stratford, knew a big task lay ahead. It would take a long time--and lots of money--to bring back the decrepit 30,000-square-foot, three-story theatre from squalor to splendor.

The theatre has come a long, long way from those early days of stench and debris. Tons of trash have been hauled out, the roof repaired, electricity installed. The old Fox sign and marquee have been rebuilt. A $600,000 pipe organ has been donated, the better to re-create the music for silent movies of yesteryear. A storefront building next door has been purchased, giving the theatre more lobby space and, more importantly, room for bathrooms on all three floors to meet accessibility laws.

After an arduous documentation process, the theatre won a landmark slot in the National Registry of Historic Places (Mission San Xavier and the Desert Lab on Tumamoc Hill are the only other Pima County sites to win the designation.) Last week, restoration artists from the EverGreene Studios in New York City were on Michelangelo-style scaffolds working on the ceiling mural.

By April, when the Fox officials plan a 75th anniversary celebration, "some 40 percent of the work will be complete," Stratford estimates. He acknowledges that it's taking a while, but nationally, he said, "historic theatres like this take 10 to 15 years to complete."

And over the years, the estimated costs of rehabbing the building and bringing it up to code have risen from $4.2 million to about $13 million. In the last year alone, Stratford said he's raised close to $1 million, but while he's chasing the money, inflation pushes up the price tag.

"The cost goes up a half a million a year," Stratford said. "Over the last two years, for instance, the cost of the steel we need has gone from $75,000 to $200,000."

Nevertheless, two weeks ago, a trio of City Council members made the front page of the Arizona Daily Star when they slammed the Fox and its board for proceeding too slowly with the rehab. They questioned whether Stratford and his team were up to the job. And they bristled at a proposed financial plan that would allow the Fox to get cash upfront by taking out some $4.5 million in a loan or bonds--secured by Rio Nuevo--to finish up construction this year, at this year's costs, and open its doors by New Year's Eve.

"The sooner we open, the sooner people will go downtown, go into the restaurants, and so on," Rio Nuevo Director Greg Shelko said later, explaining the reason for the proposal. "And the costs go up every year. Right now, it's a $12 million project; it will be $12.5 million by the end of the year. You're likely to see a 10 to 15 percent raise in costs over several years. It's in everybody's best interest to get it done as soon as possible."

It didn't help that when Assistant City Manager Karen Thoreson presented the proposal at the meeting, she told council members that she couldn't guarantee that the Fox could pay a loan back.

"We were told these people would not be able to pay the bond," an indignant Councilman Fred Ronstadt told the Weekly earlier this week. "They're going to have to demonstrate that they have the ability to make the payments."

Thoreson said later she does indeed believe the Fox board would be able to repay the loan, but she had a fiscal responsibility to point out the risks to the council members.

"Under the business plan, I believe they (the Fox) will be able to repay the debt," Thoreson told the Weekly. "But it's like co-signing a loan. It's responsible of me to point out that there's some risk. I can't guarantee it."

Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar said the council was "blindsided," complaining that she and her fellow council members were given only a one-page information sheet instead of a detailed financial plan. But Shelko said that information will be forthcoming; this time around, city staffers were just giving the council an initial heads-up on the plan.

"Herb and his board are working hard on the package to demonstrate their capacity to pay the loan," Shelko said. "The purpose of the meeting was not to go in with a 100-page report. We were prepared to advance the idea, but we didn't have the terms yet."

Councilman Steve Leal objected that giving a loan to just one of the many Rio Nuevo projects would set a bad precedent.

The Fox is what its supporters like to call a "marquee project" of the Rio Nuevo downtown revitalization scheme. Listed by name on the Rio Nuevo ballot measure that the voters passed in 1999, the Fox is entitled to a one-three split of money from Rio Nuevo's TIF (tax-increment financing) funding pot: For every TIF dollar the city gives, the Fox is to raise two on its own.

But some council members see the Fox loan proposal as upsetting the carefully calibrated TIF balance.

"The ballot item was specific about how much money could go to any development," said Ronstadt. "We also promised the voters we would not engage in projects that became financial drains."

So far, the Fox has been allotted about $3.5 million in TIF money. And Stratford emphasized that he's asking for a loan, not a handout.

"We're not asking for more Rio Nuevo money," he said. "That would violate the spirit of the law. We're asking for a loan, and Rio Nuevo is in a position to guarantee the loan. We have the ability to work out the debt service for our project. We'd like to keep the construction crew working on the site and finish the building by the end of the year."

But Ronstadt and Dunbar both question whether the fund-raising efforts have been strenuous enough.

"I'm not casting aspersions on the Fox board," Ronstadt said, "but fund raising has to be more than selling seats and stars."

In fact, Stratford and his board have picked up about $3 million in grants and donations, including a $1 million federal grant and $180,000 in Tucson Back to Basics money. The National Landmark designation should soon free up some $1.5 million in federal tax credits.

Contrary to a Jan. 14 headline in the Star--"City may fire Fox Theatre's overseers"--neither the city nor Rio Nuevo has the power to remove the Fox executive director or board members, Shelko said. But under the terms of a development agreement, "We can make demands on performance. We can demand remedies, but we have no interest in taking part in day-to-day management." And he has no plans to make such demands. The Fox Foundation, he believes, "has done a good job."

Shelko and Thoreson intend to visit council members individually to present their case in-depth. Both are optimistic that once council members get a full financial report, they'll come around to the idea of using a loan to leverage an early opening of the venerable theater. Everyone on both sides of the fracas agrees on at least one thing: The restored Fox is crucial to a revitalized downtown.

"The Fox is key to Rio Nuevo," as Ronstadt put it. "It's a huge anchor for the east side of downtown. It's important historically for our community."

Some argue that its uniqueness means that it should be treated differently. After all, among all the Rio Nuevo projects, it's the only existing historic building, not to mention the only certified landmark. The Convento will be a 21st-century re-creation of a lost 18th-century building; the museum cluster projected to go in on the west bank of the Santa Cruz will consist of all new structures; the arena and the Civic Plaza will be freshly minted as well.

And the Fox, embedded in the Congress streetscape, has the capacity to generate money and customers for surrounding businesses. Stratford says that when the Fox opens its doors, its mixed program of live music, theatre, dance and movies will help draw new crowds downtown; ticket sales will help pay off the loan, and fund raising will continue.

"This is a no-brainer," said Steve Farley, a community activist who may mount a bid for Ronstadt's council seat this fall. "The Fox can make a huge difference downtown. It will help other things happen. Put a little money into something that is already your marquee. Grow the businesses you have already--this is rule No. 1 of economic development. And this is a loan. They would give the money back."

R. Brooks Jeffery, head of Preservation Studies at the UA, agrees that historic preservation can help prop up a sagging downtown.

"There's no question that this is a singular building that should be preserved," he said. "Obviously, it made the National Register. The bigger question is: Should the city be investing in its monuments as a long-term economic generator? The answer is yes. Without civic support that generates private investments, downtown could not be revitalized. We need to step up to the plate and be willing to invest."

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