The University of Arizona has spent nearly $13 million designing a new science center for Rio Nuevo — including notable expenses for travel, meals and architectural designs that have been discarded, according to an investigation by the Arizona Daily Star.
Pitched to voters in 1999 as a $30 million item, science-center costs ballooned to $350 million with the proposed addition of a Rainbow Bridge across Interstate 10 before settling back down to about $130 million in a joint development with the Arizona State Museum.
With the project poised to move ahead with its third and final building design, a database created by the Star gives taxpayers their first detailed look at what's been spent since mid-2004.
Combing through more than 2,700 paper receipts provided by the UA, the Star found:
● $4.86 million to architect Rafael Viñoly, about two-thirds of which was for the Rainbow Bridge and other designs that were scrapped. Viñoly is still working on a scaled-back science center.
● More than $355,000 in travel expenses for consultants and personnel, including trips to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Acapulco, Mexico; The Hague, Netherlands; and various locations around Italy. Much of the travel money was spent bringing consultants to Tucson for meetings, evidenced by more than $40,000 spent on plane tickets.
● $63,000 wired to a Russian bank so a software company called Softomate could develop an Internet Explorer Toolbar add-on. UA officials said they wired the money to Russia because that office does different work than the company's office in Washington state.
● More than $1 million to outside consultants for exhibit design, although the UA is doing most of the exhibit design itself.
● $112,000 for state-of-the-art computers, laptops and electronic equipment for the university, including $7,000 to purchase 12 iPhones. The UA received few bulk discounts on the equipment.
● More than $250,000 in rent, furniture and installation for a new office in the Unisource Tower, so the university would have a presence Downtown.
● $173,000 for public relations.
● $43,000 for local catering and for meals throughout the country, including New York.
● The UA billed city taxpayers nearly $1.75 million in salaries for university employees who worked on the project.
University defends spending
The university defended the expenses on travel, meals, technology and architecture, saying it pared back spending as much as possible when the city reduced its funding for the science center.
Bob Smith, the UA's director of facilities, design and construction, said the payments to Viñoly are "well within the normal parameters of architectural, engineering and specialty consultant costs" for a complex project such as the science center.
Smith said 75 percent of the meal costs were catering for community meetings or working meetings that contributed to the development of programs, exhibit concepts and design.
He defended the travel spending because he said the university flew many experts to Tucson for their opinions rather than paying them consulting fees. But a Star review of the receipts found that only a handful of the experts fit that description. A vast majority of the travel was for paid consultants or staff members.
"I think we are getting a heck of a deal," Smith said of the travel. "We're getting some of the best minds in the world for the cost of flying them out here."
Of those reimbursed the most for travel, only Columbia University's Peter Eisenberger, a longtime colleague of Flandrau Science Center Director Alexis Faust, directly fit Smith's description. He was reimbursed more than $52,000 for travel.
"A lot of the concepts we are using came from Peter," Faust said, adding that he spent thousands of hours on the project and never charged a fee.
Much of the international travel, Smith said, was for conferences where the UA made presentations, including one in Rio de Janeiro where he gave a presentation on how to properly engage the community when building a science center.
Faust said the iPhones were needed because smartphones will be integral to the experience at the center and they are being used in exhibit prototypes. She said the UA needs many of the laptops for exhibit prototypes as well as community outreach, adding that any furniture or electronic equipment bought will be transferred to the science center at Rio Nuevo when it is built.
The Russian contractor Softomate was selected for its expertise in developing custom toolbars for Internet Explorer and other Web browsers, along with its in-depth knowledge of "spidering" — intelligent Internet searches that add content to a Web site.
Faust said every contractor was "the best in the business or had specialized expertise that made us pick them."
Sheila Grinell, who founded and developed the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix and wrote a book on how to build a new science center, analyzed the Star's database and said none of the spending strikes her as "outrageous."
Given that the university hired people from New York, she said, "If you are going to work with them, you have to fly them." She said designers Viñoly and Ralph Appelbaum cost a lot.
But Bob Vint, a local architect who is working on preserving the Mission San Xavier del Bac, criticized the time and money spent on the now-discarded Rainbow Bridge version of the science center, saying it was "absurd" that the UA fell for the idea, and that the city and the university need to start learning from their mistakes.
"We fall for these nonsensical, grandiose visions and throw millions of dollars at them. It's just dumb," Vint said.
However, it's not just UA money being spent. As part of the agreement to scrap the Rainbow Bridge design, the city agreed to pay half the UA's design cost, meaning city taxpayers split a $12.8 million expense.
When asked whether the city reviewed and approved the expenses, the city released a short statement from City Manager Mike Hein stating: "The city is only following the terms and conditions of the agreement. If the university approves the expenditure and pays for it, then we are obligated to reimburse one-half the amount."
A new beginning
Although university officials showed the Star the new design for the joint science center and Arizona State Museum, Smith said it was two to three weeks premature to make the plan public.
However, late Friday, Faust e-mailed the design plans to science center "supporters."
The design shows visitors entering from the west, with a large plaza in the middle containing a three-story IMAX theater. The science center with its planetarium dome is to the left and the museum to the right. A dome-shaped telescope is located at the southeast corner of the building.
Smith said the final schematic design will be completed soon, with the more intensive design and engineering work to be completed next year. An optimistic timetable for starting construction is in mid-2009, with the center opening by 2012.
At the same time, staff for the Flandrau is developing exhibits for the science center. The centerpiece is an interface that will allow visitors to swipe either an electronic card or a smartphone at the entrance to the museum and at all exhibits.
Faust said the interface — a program called ZoneBee the UA has spent $750,000 on — will transfer content from the exhibits to cell phones and home computers and allow visitors to experience the center after they've left. The museum would also create a specialized Web site for visitors and continually update users with new science and Flandrau information.
To help create ZoneBee, the UA hired New York-based employee Giovanni Battistini for nearly $150,000, and has reimbursed him more than $78,000 for travel, meals and cell-phone use in the past several years. Faust said Battistini would make much more in the private sector.
Battistini also has an agreement with the UA to try to develop ZoneBee commercially. The agreement calls for the UA to have a "substantial" investment with Battistini in the product, but the amount is confidential under the terms of the contract.
UA President Robert Shelton said ZoneBee is a good concept with the potential to be engaging for museum visitors.
Shelton said he did not look at the Star's numbers, and delegated the budget and planning for the science center to those under him.
Reactions of support, anger
Tucson City Council members defended the university and its spending.
Councilwoman Regina Romero, who represents the West Side, said the university is the expert, and she has faith in it to "plan, design and deliver" the science center.
Mayor Bob Walkup said the spending amounts "sound about right to me." He said the city will soon conduct an audit to see how the UA has spent the money, even though the city has already paid the UA most of its $6.4 million share.
Some community members were more critical.
Downtown business owner Margo Susco said she was appalled by what she called the extravagance of the UA's spending: $16,000 at the Arizona Inn, $40,000 on plane flights, and meals at some of Tucson's finest establishments.
"As a taxpaying small business owner Downtown, I think it's ridiculous," Susco said. "They are just flagrantly spending. It's just not right."
Developer Richard Studwell said the UA spent money on whatever it thought it needed with no regard to cost.
"This is indicative of Rio Nuevo: It's not run in a business-like fashion," Studwell said, adding there's little appreciation shown for the taxpayer's money. "They fire the football coach if he loses too many games. These guys are spending millions of dollars and nothing is said."