David Fitzsimmons: Great adventures in downtown renewal told in a short history of Rio Nuevo

2012-06-23T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T10:50:17Z David Fitzsimmons: Great adventures in downtown renewal told in a short history of Rio NuevoDavid Fitzsimmons Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Let us review the history of Rio Nuevo - for those who ignore history are not usually that good at math either. And that, my friends, is the whole enchilada.

In 1999 we voted to redevelop downtown into something called Rio Nuevo. In 1999 we also thought Ricky Martin was straight and the euro was a swell idea. Once known as "Rio Nu-ever-gonna-happen," today it is known simply as "The Joke," or as local astronomers like to call it, RN-99, the largest cash-gobbling black hole in our galaxy.

The official mission of the Rio Nuevo Office of Squandering and Pilferage was to oversee every project all the way from the initial planning stages to the trash bin to the shredder. Rio Nuevo's original dream team hoped to develop a historic mission re-creation, retail shops, housing, a magic aquarium on a rainbow bridge made out of Oreo cookies and an underground lair stocked with escape pods for use when the feds closed in.

Rio Nuevo devoured money like a cannibal high on bath salts. Millions were spent on downtown redevelopment with an eye to the future, a nose to the grindstone and its hands in our pockets. But what about today, here and now? Downtown is home to more nipple rings than San Francisco. But more than that, it's home to thousands of residents and workers living and working in a rich mix of neighborhoods, torn up asphalt and more traffic cones than a NASCAR obstacle course.

Downtown is the most unusual area in all of Tucson. And, let's face it, swamp-cooler people, Tucson is a city comprised of 327 soulless suburbs in search of a heart and a Walmart that's open at 3 a.m. Downtown is that heart.

Downtown may have many empty lots, investors jamming the local suicide hotline and former Rio Nuevo board members waiting for a bus to Toltec, but if you throw in the human javelinas with cranberry Mohawks and marmalade eyes, and the granola-nibbling trolley addicts you have the kind of diversity that makes Tucson special.

In April 2011 the FBI seized the financial records from the Rio Nuevo elves, a man named Harold Hill who had just sold the city band instruments, a troll hoping to trade a rainbow bridge to an undercover agent for five magic beans, and three Branch Davidians who were plotting to build a Sonoran aquarium downtown. The investigation frenzy was under way.

A new Rio Nuevo audit claimed the city of Tucson had not accounted for $33.8 million of questionable spending on matchbox cars, Legos and a consultant named "Mr. City."

The Legislature stepped in it, wiped off its shoes and appointed grown-ups to the board. The board revised its mission to include suing everyone within a 100-mile radius and to elevating the art of thumb twiddling to an Olympic sport. And then, suddenly, the board lost a few of its members in a political hunting accident. Some say Jim Click, Pope Benedict XVI and the Knights Templar were behind everything. This could not be true because the pope was out of town and the Tucson Thumb Twiddling team was on its way to London.

The 27 previous audits were right on the money and were worth every penny because we all learned what those of you who were in a coma during the last 10 years didn't know: Mistakes were made.

There are two lessons we can take way from all of this: Revisiting past mistakes is more fun than moving forward and accounting can be exciting.

I think it's time to close down the critics like a Congress Street business and look to the future. Among their many positive achievements, the Rio Nuevo wizards can count the new Fourth Avenue underpass, the Train Depot and the high-employment numbers for attorneys. Rio Nuevo can clearly count a streetcar named "Perspire" among its notable achievements.

What Rio Nuevo can't count is up to 10. After that the overlords are totally lost if the bills are twenties, fifties or higher.

Unshaken, my confidence is buoyed by leaders who are working to stimulate private-sector development by charging a property tax on shadows cast by entrepreneurs on city sidewalks, renaming Tucson "Little Houston" and employing City Council members to pull rickshaws up and down Stone Avenue.

Downtown will be revitalized. Thanks to sunshine and lollipops and the 1,200 students who will be moving into one dorm room downtown. Thanks to the capitalist risk takers who are investing in downtown. And fingers crossed, thanks to the catastrophic flood the Mayans warned us about, a new downtown will rise up.

Email Star cartoonist David Fitzsimmons: tooner@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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