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Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Sta

In the next few weeks, Pima County will officially link the Santa Cruz and Rillito river parks.

For folks who use it - whether they're on two wheels, two feet or in-line skates - that's going to mean an uninterrupted 23-mile stretch running from Silverlake to Craycroft roads.

It's also going to mean the first major connection in completing a 55-mile shared-use loop that will ultimately connect each of the region's jurisdictions, from Tucson to South Tucson to Marana to Oro Valley.

County officials are not only touting the urban loop's benefit as an expanded opportunity for recreation, but are touting it as a "major economic driver" for the region. They say it could draw tourists, lead to higher property values around the loop system, and even attract employers as a quality-of-life amenity.

With parks dotting the perimeter of the loop, county officials have drawn a comparison to the Emerald Necklace system, which is a seven-mile-long linear system winding its way from downtown Boston to a series of parks.

Susan Knight, the director of development for the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, said the system gets 1 million visitors a year - a boon for both residents and tourists alike. "It is the lungs of the city, I think," she said.

That system was finished in the late 1800s, so it can't really be used as a gauge for how development might progress.

But while Pima County is still lining up the remaining pieces of the loop and the full linkage could be years away, infill developer Roger Karber, a managing member of Alta Vista Communities, said the county's river park system was key in siting two of his recent projects.

A luxury apartment complex the company built at Kolb and Tanque Verde plunks residential development in the middle of a commercial area - but the impact for residents is softened by the Pantano River Park system nearby, he said.

"People want to be near the jobs and shopping, but they also want the aesthetics and the open space and the ability to recreate," he said.

Right now, he's in the midst of finalizing details on an apartment project at the southwest corner of West Ina and North Thornydale roads, which at first blush wouldn't seem like a workable mix given intense commercial activity in that area. After the first of the year, he has plans for 1,300 units on a 50 acres nearby, near two big-box retail stores, with another on the way.

Without the river park system, which will allow residents to have a nice amenity for recreation nearby, it would have been harder to develop the kind of lifestyle that would draw renters.

"I think it's easy to see that the more that park system improves, the more commerce that will aggregate around it," Karber said.

The river park system dates to the 1970s, although the flood of 1983 prompted faster land acquisition. Since 1997, the county has spent roughly $20 million, mostly from bond sales, on urban loop segments.

In an application for federal grant funding, Pima County officials estimated the loop will connect residents to four major employment centers - the downtown core, the University of Arizona, the science and technology park, and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. It will also lie within three miles of 60 percent of hotel and motel rooms within the county.

Mark Flint, a 65-year-old trail designer, was on the Rillito-Santa Cruz path on Saturday morning at 6 a.m. with nine cycling friends. It's not officially open yet, but it's close to completion if you know the tricks. He did a 30-mile ride before the heat became too oppressive.

"I think it's going to elevate Tucson's stature as a bicycle-friendly community," he said.

For those who might wonder why nearly-always-dry riverbeds would be particularly appealing, Flint said the ride is "surprisingly pretty."

"There's a lot of vegetation. You hit some areas where there are little bosques. You go by some parks. I just have to think it's going to be a great asset for visitors," he said.

Jerry Boettcher, a 54-year-old business development manager for a renewable-energy company, recently used the system for his 21-mile commute by bike from his home on the west side to his job on the east side. A change in jobs ended the commute, but his wife uses the system for a 16-mile commute to her job on the south side. On the Fourth, he and his wife rode the path from their home to the base of "A" Mountain to see the fireworks - without the hassle of parking.

The river park system takes some of the stress away because cyclists and pedestrians don't have to deal with cars, he said. And it's relatively fast, since he doesn't have to stop at intersections.

Right now, he sees cyclists turn around at La Cholla Boulevard, where the Rillito Park traditionally ended. But once word gets out that it exists, he predicts an uptick in use.

"People who aren't commuting now because they have concerns over safety will be able to use it, because it will get them off the street. It's going to be a great benefit to the community."

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at or 573-4243.