The city of Tucson has an opportunity and a problem.
The fact that they both involve 100 acres of land doesn't mean city officials can make the opportunity solve the problem.
I'm referring, of course, to Grand Canyon University's proposal to build a 100-acre campus in the Tucson area. The city has suggested it could sell or lease the money-losing 100-acre Trini Alvarez El Rio Golf Course as a possible site for the new campus.
This has raised loud protests from some residents of nearby neighborhoods. But the city should not let opposition to the El Rio site dissuade it from trying to bring the campus to town, somewhere.
It might pay for the City Council and city residents to step back and look at Grand Canyon University and city golf separately, before deciding whether they're a good fit.
A major opportunity
Grand Canyon University's plan to build a campus in the Tucson area is a great economic opportunity, and it seems for real.
Brian Mueller, the president and CEO of Grand Canyon Education Inc. (the university's parent company) said in a May 7 conference call that the company has decided not to build campuses in Albuquerque or Las Vegas, focusing instead on Tucson and possibly the East Valley of metro Phoenix. The problem with the East Valley locations is that the best locations are privately owned, he said.
"We had another call with Tucson today," he told financial analysts during the call. "Tucson is very excited. They have got a couple of sites that they actually own. So it would be different down there."
Grand Canyon officials did not return my call seeking comment, but I believe Mueller is referring to Tucson's El Rio site and to another site owned by the town of Oro Valley, which is competing to become the home of the new campus.
Joe Snell, the president and CEO of Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities Inc., told me his agency has been working with Grand Canyon for several months.
"We looked at both private land and government-owned land. Two sites in the metro area met their criteria," he said.
One is the El Rio site, Snell said, the attraction of which is that "it looks like a campus. It's got trees. It's flat."
My colleague Greg Hansen counted those trees last week and came up with 716.
The Oro Valley site remains obscure. Town officials sent me this statement indirectly tweaking Tucson: "The Town of Oro Valley does have a proposal under consideration by Grand Canyon University; however out of respect for the client, the Town is declining further comment while the project is still in negotiations."
Whoever gets the campus will receive a big economic boost: a nine-figure construction project, plus a workforce projected to reach 1,000 employees, with a payroll of $60 million, by 2020. Grand Canyon estimates eventual enrollment at the campus around 6,000 students.
"It's going to create jobs - long-term, high-wage jobs," Tucson City Councilwoman Regina Romero told me.
There are downsides to Grand Canyon University, though. It's part of a for-profit university industry that Congress exposed last year as abusing federal student-aid programs and exploiting students.
Grand Canyon Education shares are traded on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange. For-profit universities have faced investor pressure to maximize profits, by, among other methods, enrolling many more students than will finish school. A U.S. Senate investigation, released last year, found that Grand Canyon University had the seventh-highest dropout rate among for-profit colleges for students pursuing bachelor's degrees: 58 percent.
Grand Canyon also was founded by Baptists and retains an evangelical Christian approach. This may be problematic to many Tucsonans, as it is to me, when it comes to the university's view of homosexuality: The student handbook categorizes "homosexual acts" with "incest, adultery and fornication" as sexual misconduct that may result in discipline.
Freddy Ortiz gave me a golf-cart tour around the El Rio course Friday morning, and you could see why people like him want to preserve it as an open space for the public. The trees and green grass are a cool delight in the desert.
Ortiz's eyes lit up when I told him I was from the Arizona Daily Star and had come to El Rio because of the Grand Canyon proposal. The 57-year-old lives in neighboring Barrio Hollywood, golfs maybe three times a week, and likes to hang out and volunteer at the course.
"All in all, I don't want them here," he said of Grand Canyon. "We don't want no concrete. We don't want no pavement."
Ortiz, like many people, wants El Rio to remain a golf course, but Romero says it has been losing about $500,000 a year, forcing city taxpayers to subsidize its operation. Before the Grand Canyon opportunity arose, she was looking for ways to turn it into a park.
One other of the city's five golf courses, Fred Enke on the southeast side, is also losing money.
The history of the El Rio course complicates any proposal to change it.
Founded as a private course and country club in 1929, El Rio was bought by the city of Tucson in 1968. In 1970, neighborhood residents launched a protest movement, demanding that the city provide a promised park and needed services to the west-side barrios. Ortiz was one of those protesters, a high-school freshman who joined as part of the "bandwagon," he said.
"Back in those days, it was no paving, no sidewalks, no streetlights," Salomón Baldenegro, a leader of those protests, told me Thursday.
Protesters eventually entered El Rio - still an exclusive, white enclave among the barrios - and occupied it to demand the city live up to its commitments. Finally, the city agreed to build the neighboring park, now called Joaquín Murrieta Northwest Park, and El Rio Community Center.
"The politicians fail to recognize the symbolic nature of El Rio," Baldenegro said.
Indeed, those opposing the Grand Canyon proposal have formed what they're calling El Rio Coalition II - a nod to the original El Rio Coalition that led the 1970 protests. They're framing the current conflict with the city as parallel to that one.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva also helped lead the 1970 protests and is a strong critic of the for-profit college industry. He told me Friday he thinks the protests should be recognized in any future use, but not limit people's thinking about changes to the course.
"The whole struggle at El Rio was to look forward, think about the future, think about the kids," he said.
A separate issue is that the Tucson Conquistadores are in a contract with the city to provide golfing programs to city youth at the course. The contract has years left, and the Conquistadores, a powerful and generous local group, want it fulfilled.
he's Not convinced
The complications of the El Rio site have left Councilman Steve Kozachik convinced that Grand Canyon's proposal can't work there, in part because pushing this forward would damage trust in the city government.
"I'm not saying let's blow off Grand Canyon. I'm saying this isn't the place to do it," he said.
Even Romero, the official most closely identified with the project, says she is undecided on it, merely wanting the city to explore what sort of deal could be struck. But she's convinced the golf program's deficits need to be fixed one way or another.
"It is a city issue. It's not a west side issue," she said.
When I look at the El Rio problem and the Grand Canyon opportunity, I'm with Kozachik: I can't see how the one can be made to solve the other. But far from criticizing Romero over it, as the protesters do, I credit her with trying to address the golf problem as well as take advantage of the opportunity Grand Canyon presents.
Let's hope the city, which needs these jobs, can interest Grand Canyon in another site.
The likelihood, though, is that won't work, and Oro Valley will win another local economic-development battle. People will blame the squabbling city for another loss. But maybe it's just an imaginative idea that has too many drawbacks to work.
Contact columnist Tim Steller at email@example.com or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter