Troubled Waters

Tucson's aquarium project is roiled before it even gets off the ground.

There was consternation when the city agreed to negotiate with an out-of-town consortium for the Rio Nuevo aquarium contract.

Questions about viability of the proposed Tucson aquarium grew as Denver's Ocean Journey headed for a financial collapse--widely discussed in Tucson--that seemed to underscore the precarious state of aquariums that proliferated nationwide in the past decade. Ocean Journey failed to attract a financially sufficient number of visitors even though attendance was in the top 10 among 36 aquariums nationwide. The $93 million facility, on the bank of the Platte River and near downtown Denver, filed for bankruptcy protection Monday to avert closure. It is $63 million in debt.

The troubles in Denver have overshadowed criticism locally of Swinerton Builders, a construction giant based in San Francisco and a key player in Tucson Aquatic Center, the team seeking to secure the Rio Nuevo aquarium contract.

Swinerton blitzed the Tucson area in recent years with dazzling bids on major projects including the Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building, the University of Arizona Student Union, facilities for El Dorado Hospital and Pima Community College and a school in the Amphitheater School District.

But those projects have been accompanied by complaints that Swinerton contracts with out-of-town firms and workers, doesn't meet construction schedules and feuds with subcontractors.

"We're very concerned about their business practices," said James Kuliesh, executive director of the Alliance of Construction Trades.

Industry officials are still upset, for example, that Swinerton went to Texas for the glass work at the federal courthouse, a nearly $82 million project that opened in late summer 2000 after delays of almost a year.

City Councilwoman Shirley Scott said she has made City Manager James Keene "very aware" about Swinerton and the complaints the company has generated.

Scott, a two-term Democrat in southeast Ward 4, said she "is deeply concerned" about Swinerton not using local workers and local companies as well as the company's payment record.

Disputes in payment to subcontractors on the courthouse job led to three lawsuits filed against Swinerton, previously known as Connelly Swinerton and Swinerton Walberg, in U.S. District Court.

Sun Mechanical Contracting of Tucson landed a $5.3 million contract for work on the courthouse on April 1, 1998. Changes boosted Sun's costs to $5.7 million and the company sued last year to collect $375,337.

"An implied provision of the subcontract was that the construction would be managed and proceed in an orderly and timely manner, such that Sun Mechanical could complete its work in an orderly and timely manner," Sun lawyers Phil Higdon, Gordon Lewis and Thomas Horne said in court papers. "The project was not properly organized so that Sun Mechanical could complete its work in a timely and orderly manner."

Changes in job conditions and requirements by Swinerton also jacked up costs, Sun complained.

Sun settled with Swinerton 11 months ago after mediation. Details were sealed. Higdon described it as a "compromise," typical of settlements.

A more bitter and protracted dispute arose from a $709,400 contract that Terra Nova Enterprises had with Swinerton to do earthwork at the court house.

Contractors Capital Funding filed suit against Swinerton about a year before the courthouse opened, alleging a breach of contract. Swinerton, according to the lawsuit, owed $240,709. Swinerton filed a counterclaim.

Swinerton paid Terra Nova and Contractors Capital $687,390 but claims it incurred another $768,149 for earthwork and compaction at the courthouse site, leaving it with $746,154 it says it overpaid.

The claims and counterclaims are now before a special master, C. Patrick Stoll, of a Rancho Cordova, Calif., law firm.

Scheduling and disputes with subcontractors also have troubled Swinerton's work on the delayed $59-million student union and bookstore at the UA.

Swinerton pinned the blame 11 months ago on Hoffman Steel, but that company's lawyer, Terry Esser, said Hoffman was made to be the "fall guy" in a schedule mishandled by Swinerton.

Privately, UA officials have been infuriated by Swinerton's performance.

But many of the scheduling, subcontractor and labor issues have been smoothed to the point that Joel Valdez, senior vice president for business affairs at the UA and former longtime city manager, this week characterized them as "ups and downs."

Some, he said, were inherent with limited experience in the design-build process in which the general contractor, not the project owner, also hires designers.

The Tucson Aquatic Center, the group seeking the Rio Nuevo aquarium contract, features Swinerton and Chermayeff, Sollogub and Poole, Inc., a Boston architecture firm. International Design for the Environment Associates is associated with the Boston architects and would help design and manage the Rio Nuevo aquarium.

City bureaucrats led by John S. Jones, a longtime city troubleshooter and special projects captain, selected the group over a Tucson-based organization that helped develop the aquarium concept for Rio Nuevo.

A final contract is not expected to go to the City Council until this summer.

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