Tim Steller: Grand Canyon University's interest in El Rio spurned too quickly

2013-06-30T00:00:00Z Tim Steller: Grand Canyon University's interest in El Rio spurned too quicklyTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 30, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The fact that Grand Canyon University has backed off building a new campus in Tucson doesn't mean the Old Pueblo is becoming Detroit.

Yet the debate over Tucson's economic future is becoming anxious - and yes, leading to increasing comparisons with the Motor City.

The similarities are few, in my view. Yes, it's true that neither city's revenue is keeping up with demands for services, and both have alarming rates of poverty. And there are familiar signs in the way Tucson has handled the Grand Canyon University proposal.

"Opportunities tend to come to our plates, and we tend to overthink them, overanalyze them, or get derailed by a small minority," said Joe Higgins, a Tucson small-business owner and radio host who makes the Detroit comparison.

The problem isn't so much that critics decried the plan to sell El Rio Golf Course to the Christian university, but that local leaders - and the university itself - allowed themselves to be spooked by the friction.

Grand Canyon may still build in the Tucson area, but the quick cooling of the project has set off a soul-searching debate around town, involving Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO Mike Varney, City Councilman Steve Kozachik, west-side activist Miguel Ortega, City Councilwoman Regina Romero, civil-rights activist Cecilia Cruz-Baldenegro and local business attorney Si Schorr, among others.

The big question is whether we're doing enough to build a strong economic climate in Tucson or are dooming ourselves to a Detroit-like death spiral.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and I talked about it at City Hall Friday, and he scoffed at the comparison.

"You tell me how this looks like Detroit," he said, gesturing to the desert city outside his 10th-floor office. "That is just silly."

On May 31, Rothschild attended a local presentation by economic-development author Mark Lautman, who argues the ability to retain and attract a qualified workforce will separate successful cities ("Winnerville") from failing ones ("Loserville") in the future.

"We're not badly positioned in some ways because we've got U of A and PCC. I think we need to do more with the Embry-Riddles of the world," he said, referring to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and other schools that focus on in-demand career fields.

Grand Canyon University may not be a specialized institution like Embry-Riddle, but it does focus on topics such as nursing and teaching that can lead directly to jobs.

Confidentiality needed

My colleague Darren DaRonco broke the news May 8 of Grand Canyon's interest in building a new campus at El Rio Golf Course.

In the controversy that ensued, one of the key citizen complaints was that the city was doing public business in private.

"Deception and lack of transparency by our city elected officials and public servants is all too common," Cruz-Baldenegro, chair of the El Rio Coalition II, wrote in a June 17 Star op-ed.

Certainly, the city did not have a leg to stand on by withholding economic-impact assessments of the proposed Grand Canyon campus, once the coalition filed a public-records request for them.

But the idea that a period of confidentiality signals a cover-up is wrong, and is the sort of complaint taken most seriously in the Loservilles of the future. Confidentiality agreements over site selection discussions are normal.

I asked longtime economic-development attorney Larry Hecker how long discussions of possible new projects should stay private.

"Confidentiality needs to be maintained as long as possible so you can retain your competitive position," he said. "While you're negotiating, it's like any contract, you want to be able to negotiate the best deal without having to disclose the details to competitors."

That desire for an optimal negotiating position must be balanced, of course, against the public's right to have a real, influential debate over the proposed deal before it's done.

"When it comes to the point you really think you may be close to something, then you have to go to the public," Rothschild said.

There's no absolute rule as to when in the process there must be public disclosure and debate, but the Grand Canyon University deal for El Rio Golf Course was not nearly as advanced as opponents have alleged.

"Everybody thought we were there," Rothschild said. "We weren't there."

Biggest shame

This is what I think was the biggest shame in the quick cooling of the Grand Canyon University's interest in El Rio. The deal might never have worked, but the university's desire for the El Rio site put the city, and its citizens, in a good position.

The El Rio Coalition II opposed the entire concept of selling El Rio to a private university. It's an understandable position, but not an imaginative one. A more creative approach would have been to find out how badly GCU really wanted the site by proposing some terms neighborhood residents would want.

Could Joaquin Murrieta Park have been expanded and upgraded by GCU, or combined with a portion of the El Rio property in a bigger public park? Would GCU have committed to providing a certain number of scholarships to west-side children every year?

We'll never know, because Councilwoman Romero responded to critiques of selling El Rio by turning against the idea. Romero told me Friday that it wasn't the opposition of El Rio Coalition II that made up her mind.

"It was mostly community input," she said. "Not just neighborhoods, but also groups like Tucson Clean & Beautiful."

Also, gay and lesbian groups opposed Grand Canyon based on its apparent prohibition of homosexual behavior in its handbook, she said.

Yet I can't help but wonder how strong was the influence of El Rio Coalition II members who tend to oppose Romero not just because of her positions on issues, but because of her ties to U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva.

Miguel Ortega, a leader of the coalition and failed political candidate, decried selling El Rio to Grand Canyon University as a "terrible idea" that was not "proper economic development." With all due respect to micro-credit and other help for small businesses, the construction of a 100-acre university campus employing perhaps 1,000 people is strong, proper economic development.

That such opinions influenced our elected leaders and derailed a beneficial project raises real questions about where Tucson's economy is headed, even if we're not on the road to becoming a burned-out Rust Belt city.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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