While Tucson and Rio Nuevo haggle over which of them should pay to fix up the aging Tucson Convention Center, two longtime cultural staples are fleeing the downtown facility for nicer digs at the new Casino Del Sol resort and concert center.

After 29 years downtown, the Tucson International Mariachi Conference is poised to announce a move early next month to the casino, giving people one less reason to go downtown and putting them out of reach for city sales and hotel bed taxes.

Casino Del Sol, at 5655 W. Valencia Road, is also the destination for Las Florecitas, an event that celebrates the coming-of-age for young women in an effort to raise money for scholarships. That event, organized by the League of Mexican American Women, has been at the TCC for at least 35 of its 45 years.

Short term, the city and Rio Nuevo board are jousting over which is responsible for upward of $3 million in immediately needed repairs and upgrades. To be truly competitive, the TCC needs more than 10 times that amount of work, said deputy director Tommy Obermaier.

Organizers of both events say the TCC has long been their home, but the amenities at the expanded casino, run by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, will make their events more successful.

The mariachi conference, which offers performances by renowned mariachis and ballet folklorico groups, many from out of the area, is intended to raise money for its sponsoring agency, La Frontera Arizona. Extra revenue was used to support its programs for the children and the homeless.

The event lost $200,000 over the last two years.

Dan Ranieri, La Frontera's president and chief executive, said the losses are not just a reflection of the economic downturn. The event hasn't made a profit in seven years.

He said there has been some recent downturn in attendance, in part because other cities started replicating the successful event, making travel to Tucson less necessary. With performers in greater demand, their fees went up, as did other costs, such as for lighting and sound.

The casino has staff that is better equipped to manage and promote concerts, Ranieri said.

The focus of the current city/Rio Nuevo dispute is the $3 million needed right away for bathrooms, bleachers and equipment. A total overhaul to be competitive could approach $40 million, Obermaier said.

This, at a time when the city's general fund already forked over a $2.1 million subsidy last year.

Obermaier said the No. 1 reason event planners say they've nixed conventions here is because of the dearth of quality hotel rooms adjacent to the complex.

The casino, meanwhile, opened a new 215-room hotel and resort area in November, as part of a $130 million expansion.

Monica Flores, the president of the League of Mexican American women, said the hotel was a big selling point, since many families invite out-of-town guests to the quinceañera-type celebration.

Plus, the group doesn't serve a dinner in order to cap the ticket prices. Having a restaurant at the hotel will be convenient for families.

"We totally understand that the economy isn't great and the city budget is limited, but we also listened to the parents," Flores said. "Parents told us is they'd like somewhere to eat. They'd like a place to stay over. We've always had it at the TCC, but this venue is more appealing and more accommodating."

Ranieri said the deterioration at the TCC wasn't really the issue.

"It's obviously a tired facility, but at the same time, that's not the make-or-break issue. Even if it was run-down, it was home," he said. "But we had to breathe some new life into the event and get people excited about it. We can't just do the same old thing."

Ranieri, who has overseen the event for 18 years, said the details with the casino are still being worked out, but he expects an announcement about the final agreement soon.

His goal this year is just to be in the black, he said.

Obermaier said he doesn't like losing events but notes new ones always come in as well. He said this is the busiest January, February and March in 10 years. And every event translates into payroll, he said, from ushers to stagehands to off-duty police.

The center, he said, not only supports the arts but gives people a reason to come downtown, whether they're into wrestling or concerts or gem shows or the Harlem Globetrotters.

On the other hand, he acknowledged, he doesn't blame city leaders for weighing their options, especially with buzz continuing about building a new arena site. "There comes a point where you can't keep investing in an antiquated facility. Ticket prices are pretty high, so when you are in a 40-year-old building that needs a lot of cosmetic and structural work, people may not feel that they're having a quality experience."

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said while at some point he expects the community to weigh in on whether they want to upgrade the site or find another option, he hopes there will be a resolution to the immediate funding need within the next four months.

"We can't let the place deteriorate any further," Rothschild said. Hotels, restaurants and retail want to know there will be thousands of people downtown with some frequency. "Unless we have a central attraction, then everything else we do is going to be hard-pressed to succeed."

The numBers

The mariachi festival has been a staple downtown, but it has lost money in recent years.


Years the Tucson International Mariachi Conference has been at the TCC


Amount organizers say the mariachi event has lost over the past two years

$3 million

Amount needed right away for upgrades and repairs at the Convention Center

$40 million

Estimated cost for a total overhaul for the TCC to be competitive

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at rbodfield@azstarnet.com or 573-4243.