Tuesday, I sat in a meeting of special interests and a politician.
But the special interests were not dressed in business suits and the politician wasn’t seeking campaign contributions. Neither was the meeting held in one of Tucson’s posh resorts or in the seclusion of a finely furnished corporate office.
This wasn’t your usual collection of civic heavyweights asking for a vote.
At this meeting the special interests were dressed in jeans and shirts, caps, boots and tennis shoes. They sat in a noisy dining room on the south side sipping iced tea and soda, and munching on tortilla chips and red salsa.
This was the workingman’s version of democracy and lobbying.
The group, about 14 supporters of the Rillito Park Horse Racetrack, met with Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías at Rigo’s Restaurant in South Tucson to plead on behalf of the historic venue’s future.Under the din of mariachi music and the late lunch crowd, the horse owners, trainers and lovers of horse racing, expressed their worries that the county is moving forward with plans to eliminate horse racing at the county owned facility, at North First Avenue near East River Road.
They asked to meet with Elías, whose District 5 does not include the racetrack, because they feel county officials are not listening to them and, worse, not giving them truthful information.
“I have yet to get a definitive answer,” horse trainer Joe Castillo told Elías. “The group here is made up of little guys getting bounced around by the big guys.”
Another trainer, Gary Duke, who has been running horses at Rillito for 40 years, put the group’s dilemma more succinctly: Rillito has community support but doesn’t have the political support.
Youth soccer at Rillito, however, is what has community and political support, said the group.
Their frustration was evident. It’s been growing as questions about Rillito have mounted over the years. There is pressure to use the county-owned racetrack for other purposes, notably soccer.
The county has talked about building an 18-field soccer complex but financial constraints have put that on hold. The county, however, is expected to demolish one brick barn this year and not replace it.
Group members are convinced the county wants to end horse racing at Rillito. They don’t understand why.
They point out that the Rillito track, born during World War II, is a valuable part of history. It is one of the oldest racetracks in the West and quarter-horse racing began there. A piece of the track, the quarter-horse chute, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
There are soccer fields throughout Tucson but there is only one Rillito racetrack, said the group, which sat under photos of wild horses and a cowboy lassoing a calf in a rodeo.
Elías said he understands their sentiments, but he didn’t go as far as they had wanted.
“I understand the historic value. We share it,” said the seventh-generation Arizonan. “But it doesn’t mean we can’t rebuild Rillito in some way.”
Elías said the property is one of the most valuable in the county’s park inventory, second only to Tucson Mountain Park. The challenge for the county is to use Rillito to its maximum potential. Moreover, said Elías, that area needs a regional park.
The group didn’t agree with Elías but was respectful. Some in the group said Rillito is used for soccer and that there are nearby parks.
“Our kids play soccer, too,” said a woman in the group.
The discussion over Rillito’s future does not have to be “either-or,” Elías said. Rillito could be developed to include horse racing, soccer and other public uses, he added.
The group, while not completely convinced, thanked the supervisor for listening.
Elías told the group he may not be the group’s loudest cheerleader but he said he’ll help the group get a meeting with Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. He urged them to organize and gather their supporters.
There’s still time. No final decisions about Rillito have been made, Elías said.
“It’s not over yet. That’s what I’m saying.”