Three for the Money

A trio of Pima County’s proposed bond questions deal with economic development, tourism and quality of life issues

Three of the questions that we'll decide next week as part of the seven-measure, $815 million bond package revolve generally around economic development, tourism, healthcare, libraries, law enforcement and similar quality-of-life questions.

The first is Prop 426, which asks voters to let the county borrow $91 million for a variety of economic development projects. There are two tech incubators: One would have lab space in Oro Valley near existing biotech firms (Price tag: $15 million) and the other would be an "innovation/technology" building at The Bridges, UA's fledgling tech park at Kino and I-10 (Price tag: $20 million, with the UA kicking in another $20 million). There's $18 million for a fancy orientation center near downtown to show off the region's tourist attractions. There's $5 million to acquire 10 private and state-owned parcels within the boundaries of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base so the Air Force won't have to worry about leasing the property from private landowners, with a long-term goal of removing one possible excuse the Pentagon could use to justify shutting down the D-M in a future round of base closings. There's $3 million to create a culinary and cultural destination corridor along South 12th Avenue. There's $6 million for a new headquarters for Pima County One-Stop Career Center, which is a clearinghouse designed to match up Pima County's employers with job seekers. There's $1 million for a new headquarters for JobPath, which helps support non-traditional students who want to pursue vocational education. There's money to build new libraries and spruce up South Tucson.

Tom McGovern, a vice-president with the civil engineering firm PSOMAS and chairman of Tucson Metro Chamber board of directors, says the combination of projects is designed to "jumpstart" the region's lagging economy.

"It's seeding the kind of projects that produce jobs and entice other companies to come here to create an atmosphere of progress," McGovern says. "Everybody knows that Tucson has been among the slowest in the state and behind the U.S. in recovery and part of it is just this inability to overcome inertia. And this is what the whole bond package is about, but in particular, this question."

But Joe Boogaard, the spokesman for Taxpayers Against Pima Bonds, says the projects won't do much good.

"There are a number of projects in there that aren't going to be growth-oriented at all," says Boogaard, who was appointed to the county's bond committee by Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller, a bond opponent. "I don't have a lot of faith in government-run workforce development."

In particular, Boogaard is critical of the proposed incubators at Oro Valley and the UA tech park. "It's just going to be a money pit," Boogaard says.

But Paul August, who heads up a research team at Oro Valley's pharmaceutical firm Sanofi, sees the facility "as a vehicle for building companies and jobs" because his company and Ventana Medical Systems can help smaller companies grow if the startups can lease lab space at the nearby incubator. Just the promise of a possible incubator has already drawn one company from California to Arizona and more are interested, August says.

"Sanofi and Ventana want to help in order to increase the quality of the talent pool in Tucson for future jobs at our institutions and also create a critical mass of companies in Oro Valley to create a Silicon Valley of Southern Arizona," August adds in a written statement.

Boogaard is also critical of the city of Tucson's proposed regional orientation center, which is designed to highlight local attractions, host events and serve as an educational center. The center, which would include a cultural plaza, would be located right off I-10 near the downtown streetcar line on Cushing Street near the Santa Cruz River, in an area generally considered to be Tucson's birthplace.

Boogaard questions whether visitors need such a facility since they can prepare their trips ahead of time online or use their smart phones once they arrive.

"When I go anywhere, I've got my trip already planned on TripAdvisor or a similar website," Boogaard says. "I don't think you need an $18 million building to do that."

Prop 427 would allow the county to borrow nearly $99 million for a variety of improvements at local attractions. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum would get a major new attraction to highlight the range of ecosystems from the Gulf of California to the local sky islands. Colossal Cave Mountain Park would get a major makeover in hopes of making it a 21st century attraction. The Old Pima County Courthouse would get a remodel now that various government offices have moved out, with an aim toward creating an annex for the Tucson Museum of Art as well as a home for the proposed January 8 memorial. Old Tucson would get an educational Old West museum. The Pima Air and Space Museum would get a new hanger dedicated to the Jet Age and the Cold War. Buildings and facilities at the Pima County Fairgrounds would get some much-needed upgrades. The Reid Park Zoo would get an African safari lounge and new underwater viewing exhibits. The Temple of Music and Art would get a new roof and repairs to areas damaged by leaking water. The Tucson Children's Museum would double in size.

Many of the projects would require the museums to raise matching funds in order to get their projects underway.

The combination of projects would provide a major boost to tourism, which is a $2.8 billion industry employing more than 20,000 people in Southern Arizona, according to McGovern.

"These projects are designed to enhance those visitors' experience here and entice more to come," McGovern says.

But Boogaard is skeptical because many of the organizations that run or support the potential recipients of the bond dollars are nonprofits.

"Look at all of those projects," Boogaard says. "They are all not-for-profit corporations. And there's nothing to say that a not-for-profit corporation can't make oodles and oodles of money. When it's touted as a growth engine for the tourist industry—I always thought not-for-profit corporations were beneficiaries of prosperity and we definitely don't have that in the community here. And all of the projects getting this money are on county land. I don't agree with that. To me, that's socialism."

Prop 429 would allow the county to borrow roughly $105 million to improve and other county medical clinics as well as the juvenile justice system; build a Vail sheriff substation, affordable housing and sidewalks and other walkability elements for pedestrians; and help construct a new branch of the Community Food Bank in Sahaurita.

McGovern says the projects in this package are good for Pima County residents.

"We can debate how many things government should do, but one those things has to do with the public health, welfare and safety," McGovern says. "Supporting our neighborhoods and making sure there's affordable housing is one thing that government can do."

McGovern said that critics of the provision that provides for an $18 million expansion of Banner University Medical Center South Campus (the former Kino Hospital) don't appreciate how much the facility has improved under new management. When the county ran Kino Hospital, the losses were in the tens of millions of dollars, it mainly served as a mental-health facility and the hospital's reputation was poor. After the University Medical Center took over, the county's contribution dropped to $15 million annually and care has improved dramatically. That has continued as UMC has merged with Banner Health.

"It irritates me that people don't recognize that the hospital remains a county asset and the county is responsible for its upkeep," McGovern says. "The various things they are doing there improving the emergency department and the mental-health component are really important, especially to leverage the gigantic investment that Banner is making in our community."

Boogaard sees the neighborhood reinvestment dollars as a "carrot held out to get votes."

But in general, he thinks that more money should have been put into some of the projects in this proposition, such as sidewalk repair and streetlights.

"Maintaining our neighborhoods, I think that's a great thing to do," Boogaard says. "If we were to go back and work on that, the roads and all that would have more to do with bringing business to our community than all of this accelerator and tourism stuff we're working with."