Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
The city has resurrected the possibility of a new downtown arena - killed in 2008 because of its high cost - at the request of the University of Arizona, which may be interested in a larger basketball venue.
Mike Hein, then-city manager, tried to sell the UA on a joint arena four years ago, but multiple efforts were rebuffed by then-athletic director Jim Livengood and basketball coach Lute Olson.
With a new athletic director and head basketball coach, the UA is pushing the idea of a new downtown arena, possibly with seating up to 18,000. The likely location is property west of the Tucson Convention Center that the city put up for sale after the previous arena plan was dropped.
One other major change since then: Since scrapping the proposed $196 million, 12,000-seat arena because it was too expensive, Rio Nuevo ran out of money after spending $230 million mostly for planning.
And it's not just a new arena the UA has talked with city and Rio Nuevo officials about. Discussions have also included a potential baseball, softball and general athletic complex west of Interstate 10, near downtown. That could include everything from an indoor driving range to a domed, multiuse facility.
There's even been talk of a new football stadium, although those talks are on a slow track because of probable opposition from west-side neighbors and the UA's current $85 million in upgrades being done at Arizona Stadium.
The talks date to at least mid-December, when a meeting was held at McKale Center between Greg Byrne, UA athletic director, and other top Athletic Department officials and City Manager Mike Letcher, City Attorney Mike Rankin, Rio Nuevo Board Chairwoman Jodi Bain and Rio Nuevo board member Alberto Moore.
On Thursday, Byrne met with a dozen members of the business community to try to gauge their interest and get their backing for a plan to bring the University of Arizona downtown.
"We've got a number of different facility issues we need to address," Byrne said. "All we've done so far is talk to different people in the community."
Byrne cited numerous facility issues at Arizona Stadium, McKale Center, Kendall/Sancet baseball stadium and Hillenbrand Stadium for softball, mainly related to concessions and restrooms. There's also an interest in potentially putting skyboxes or club seats into wherever the basketball team will play - whether that be a renovated McKale, a downtown arena or elsewhere, Byrne said.
There's been no real talk about how the new arena and athletic complex would be funded, although several people said it could be through a partnership of the UA, Rio Nuevo, the city of Tucson and potentially the Pima County Sports and Tourism Authority.
The previous arena proposal died in 2008 because its estimated cost ballooned from the original $130 million to $200 million. City officials limited the arena size they were considering after experts told them the second concourse required to accommodate 18,000 seats would boost the cost to as much as $350 million.
Byrne said a new arena would help the UA compete with schools like Pac-10 opponent Oregon, which just opened a $247 million, 12,541-seat arena. With 14,545 seats, McKale Center, which opened in 1973, is the 37th-largest college basketball facility in the country.
Byrne: facilities dated
Many of the University of Arizona's facilities are dated and need improvement at a time when its competitors in the Pac-10 are upgrading facilities or building new ones, Byrne said.
The upgrade of Arizona Stadium's north side won't correct pricey concession and restroom issues on the east and west sides, he said.
McKale has several fan-amenity issues, most notably the "restrooms are not conducive to handling 14,000 people in an efficient manner," he said. He also wants to see if club seats and skyboxes could be added to McKale or at a potential new facility.
"We like McKale, we do," Byrne said. "Where we'll be long term, we have to look at what our options are."
Byrne declined to address issues such as how the UA will sell out 18,000 seats - it doesn't sell out McKale now - or taking the college's games off-campus, because, he said, the talks are in such early stages they haven't been thought about yet.
How to pay?
The project could only be paid for by a partnership of the UA, Rio Nuevo, the city and potentially the Pima County Sports and Tourism Authority, said Bain, chairwoman of the Rio Nuevo Board.
Rio Nuevo could pledge the future tax-increment financing generated from the sports complex to pay off construction bonds, she said. Funding through a stadium or community-facilities district was also discussed at the December meeting, several people said. The UA Athletic Department could also solicit gifts and donations, they said.
No clear funding source exists, however. Rio Nuevo is out of money, and most of its known future tax revenues are already committed. The city has a perpetual budget crisis. The UA is facing yet another round of budget cuts. The Pima County Sports and Tourism Authority has been in the middle of the talks, but its only current funding is $60,000 from ticket surcharges from the Tucson Padres minor-league team.
Sports and Tourism Authority Chairman Tom Tracy declined to comment on the talks.
Moore, from the Rio Nuevo Board, said the price and financing don't matter right now. He said finding the right plan and the people to lead is key, and if that happens the money will take care of itself.
"I think the community will really jump behind this," Moore said.
Even without the money issues, there are challenges. For example, Moore said he would be "scared to death" if the city were involved with the project because administrators and the City Council are incompetent - underlining the ongoing bad blood between the Rio Nuevo Board and the city, one of a number of potential stumbling blocks.
The plan would also have to overcome community skepticism from the past failures of the city, Rio Nuevo and the UA in downtown redevelopment.
It was that history that prompted state Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, to say that, while the arena concept makes sense in theory, he is dubious about how it would be paid for and who would be in charge of building it.
"If it's a Rio Nuevo scheme, it's dead on arrival. They have no credibility. We've already been burned for $230 million with nothing to show for it," he said.
The plans are in the early stages, but they are worth exploring, said Councilman Paul Cunningham, as long as "we don't have to put the taxpayers at risk."
Councilman Steve Kozachik said because of the history of downtown, the project has "got to be private-sector driven." Because Kozachik works for the UA Athletic Department, he said, he will recuse himself from any vote on the project.
Moore also backed the private sector leading the project. "It has to be developed by those people in the industry. ... The city doesn't know how to build a football stadium, a baseball stadium," he said.
Bain said she would be happy to take the issue before the Rio Nuevo Board, because the project has the potential to be the catalyst Rio Nuevo has been seeking.
"It has the potential to change the landscape of downtown in a positive light," Bain said. "This has the potential to do this for all of us."
Contact reporter Rob O'Dell at 573-4346 or firstname.lastname@example.org