Josh Brodesky: Aquarium was right idea, and it's no fish story

2012-08-02T00:00:00Z 2012-08-02T16:23:31Z Josh Brodesky: Aquarium was right idea, and it's no fish storyJosh Brodesky Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 02, 2012 12:00 am  • 

We should have built that aquarium. In light of the recent Manning House flirtation and other Rio Nuevo adventures, the Sonoran Sea Aquarium seems more and more like the big fish we threw back.

From online commenters to editors to city insiders, people love to diss the Sonoran Sea Aquarium. It's been lumped with the likes of the Rainbow Bridge and the Tortoise Arena. Just another stupid idea.

"Yeah, it has a bad rap. People love to make fun of it," former Mayor George Miller told me.

But why?

"I think what people remember is that it didn't go anywhere," said former City Manager Luis Gutierrez, who crafted the original Rio Nuevo plan. "And I think they reflect on that and say, 'Yeah, they looked at that just like they looked at the Rainbow Bridge and looked at other things.' "

But unlike the Rainbow Bridge or a grandiose arena or even an option on the historic Manning House, the Sonoran Sea Aquarium was part of the original Rio Nuevo plan. Tucson voters approved Rio Nuevo in 1999 by 62 to 38 percent - and the aquarium was a big reason the vote was such a blowout it made Reagan-Mondale look like a tight race.

"We were the signature project described in all of the campaign materials for Proposition 400 for creating the Rio Nuevo financing district," Shannan Marty, who led the aquarium effort, told me. "It was the premier project that was sold to voters."

How quickly we forget, but the $32 million Sonoran Sea Aquarium started with a group of locals, led by Marty, in the mid-90s. Their efforts played a key role in crafting a dynamic museum plan that would become the keystone to Rio Nuevo, as it was sold to the community. The plan voters approved called for Rio Nuevo giving the aquarium developer $10 million.

Despite the group's efforts, Tucson City Council ditched the locals in 2002, opting to go with an out-of-town aquarium development group.

"I'm disappointed that the local group lacked the financial viability," then-Councilman Fred Ronstadt said at the time. "They are the ones that worked hard to get the Rio Nuevo item passed in 1999. But we can't revitalize our downtown on sentiment alone."

Burning the locals made it easier to flush the aquarium down the toilet, which the city did at the end of 2002.

"There were many who felt it was not going to be sustainable," City Councilwoman Shirley Scott said at the time.

She added that the idea of an aquarium in the desert left people "scratching their heads."

But water in the desert was the whole point. From the Gulf of California to monsoon rains to our riverbeds, the aquarium was going to celebrate our water story.

If only Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities had been around to take Scott on a junket to Albuquerque to see its aquarium.

Albuquerque built an aquarium in 1997 with about $10 million through a "quality of life" tax. It was such a hit, the aquarium expanded.

I recently visited, and what did I see? A bunch of fish. And a scene our city leaders have dreamed of for years. It was packed. Kids ran up and down and all around, pressing up against the glass and gaping with awe at another world.

The aquarium is part of a popular BioPark that includes the zoo and a botanical garden. Yes, the city helps support the BioPark, but last fiscal year it drew 1,235,000 visitors.

"We are New Mexico's most visited tourist destination," Amy Landers, a BioPark spokeswoman, told me.

Seems like a fair trade for some city support.

Back here, we've come full circle. Sort of. There will never be a Rio Nuevo aquarium. But the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is hoping a small aquarium featuring marine life of the Gulf of California will boost attendance.

I couldn't help but again think of the Sonoran Sea Aquarium during the recent Rio Nuevo chatter about buying or saving the Manning House, which was never part of any Rio Nuevo plan.

Why? The plan for downtown development has changed so many times over the years, it's hard to know what Rio Nuevo is any longer. Is the focus broad or is it narrow? Is it the west-side projects or the convention center? Do we need approval from the Legislature or should we pull the plug?

At least with the aquarium, we knew what Rio Nuevo was supposed to be. We voted for it.

"I think if the aquarium project had gone forward, Rio Nuevo would be a very different thing," Marty said.

So go easy on the aquarium. It's not a symbol of out-of-touch excess like the Rainbow Bridge or the Tortoise Arena. It was voter-approved. Its supporters helped get Rio Nuevo passed - and then the city burned them. If the aquarium is a symbol of anything, it's how the city ditched the voters for supposedly bigger ideas.

On StarNet: Read the Star's special reports and investigations on Rio Nuevo at azstarnet.com/rionuevo

Contact Brodesky at 573-4242 or jbrodesky@azstarnet.com On Twitter: @joshbrodesky

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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