County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry has riled south-side officials and business owners by recommending that a project to spruce up a dilapidated Latino commercial district be left off the 2015 Pima County bond ballot.
Tucson is seeking $3.1 million in county bond funds as part of a larger project to turn South 12th Avenue into a cultural corridor to attract tourists.
But Huckelberry said the 12th Avenue Cultural and Culinary Corridor project amounts to little more than a cosmetic improvement along South 12th Avenue and doesn’t fit the criteria for a countywide bond election.
“There are literally hundreds of roads throughout the county where we would love to put in sidewalks and underground utilities,” Huckelberry said. “These needs are no different than anywhere in the county. You can say the same needs (exist) on Valencia Road or Orange Grove.”
The proposed project includes improving sidewalks and driveways, installing artwork, and putting in trees and streetlights along the two-mile stretch between West Irvington and Drexel roads, which Huckelberry said doesn’t offer a regionwide benefit.
“My first priority is to fix the roads and make them safe to travel on,” Huckelberry said. “There are $280 million in unmet road repair needs. This one is not a priority.”
City Councilwoman Regina Romero disputed Huckelberry’s conclusion that the project serves only parochial interests.
With the right amount of investment, the 12th Avenue Corridor could transform into a cultural district on par with Los Angeles’ Olvera Street and San Diego’s Old Town, and could attract tourists seeking an authentic Mexican experience, she said.
And that would benefit everybody, she said. If the project gets derailed, plans to revitalize the area could evaporate, she said.
She questioned why Huckelberry singled out this project for exclusion.
“It’s going through the public process, but Huckelberry insists on bringing this particular project down,” Romero said. “Why doesn’t he want to invest in the south side? Does he think residents don’t deserve it because they don’t pay enough in property taxes? He’s refusing to invest in the south side. And that’s a problem.”
Huckelberry said no one’s attempting to punish the south side. He said the county completed more than $9 million in road improvements to parts of 12th Avenue as part of a 1997 bond package.
It’s just that facade upgrades such as the ones sought in this project should be funded by the city, he said.
Huckelberry said there’s a finite amount of money available, which is why he also nixed $25 million in sidewalk improvements for which he believes municipal transportation departments take responsibility.
Time for a change
South-side business owners said it’s time for economic development dollars to start flowing in their direction.
“I’ve had my business on this street for 20 years, and I’ve been paying property taxes for 20 years. And in those 20 years we haven’t seen anyone come and fix the street or build a sidewalk,” said Benjamin Galaz, owner of BK Carne Asada and Hot Dogs and president of the Southside Business Coalition.
Galaz said Huckelberry fails to see the bigger picture in regard to 12th Avenue.
“I’m disappointed we have a county administrator who doesn’t see the opportunity in developing an area with so much potential and that can be such a benefit for everyone,” he said.
Jose Candelo, owner of Yerberia San Miguel, an herb shop at 5151 S. 12th Ave., said county bond dollars could reverse many entrepreneurs’ fortunes.
“People here are always trying to start something, try something new, but sometimes because of the negative impression and the lack of support for the area, people invest their money and in two, three months have to close down,” Candelo said. “If the county doesn’t help these people prosper, then things will continue to go down.”
County Supervisor Richard Elias, whose district includes the 12th Avenue Corridor, said despite Huckelberry’s recommendation, he was still going to fight for the project to be included in the bond package.
“It’s a good economic development project, and it will benefit businesses in my district substantially,” Elias said. “We might need to rework the project some to take care of some of the issues, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad project. There are many bond projects that come to us that need to be worked on.”
Huckelberry said the county’s Bond Advisory Committee seeks his recommendations, and he gives it his thoughts, which members can factor in as they choose. Once the committee makes its recommendation, the final bond package that goes to voters is up to the Board of Supervisors, he said.
The next Bond Advisory Committee meeting is this Friday at 8 a.m. at the River Park Inn.