The pigs have flown — Arizona lawmakers, without a nay vote among them, passed legislation that frees the Rio Nuevo board to spend money on downtown projects without yoking them to building a hotel.
Rio Nuevo’s lengthy history of waste and mismanagement was so egregious that in 2010 the Arizona Legislature stepped in and limited the Rio Nuevo board’s power to improving the Tucson Convention Center or building a hotel. It put the brakes on Rio Nuevo, replaced some board members but also created some time to regroup and clean house.
This legislation has taken those restrictions away.
Gov. Jan Brewer signed the bill, making it a new day for Rio Nuevo and Tucson’s effort to pump life into downtown and across the Santa Cruz River to the base of “A” Mountain.
The change is welcome. The new board members have made tremendous progress by settling legal fights with the city of Tucson, beginning renovation of the Tucson Convention Center and making all of their expenditures easily searchable on the Rio Nuevo website, and being up front about the Rio Nuevo district’s vast past shortcomings.
Another change would also be welcome — a name change for Rio Nuevo. The board that oversees the district and its projects earlier this month decided to keep the name, saying that positive news is beginning to turn public perception around.
The board is too close to the situation. Rio Nuevo is attached to the defunct fantasy that the master plan would include a river walk (it means “new river” in Spanish). There’s talk of trying to get water back in the Santa Cruz River, a longterm stretch at best.
While it’s true that some of Rio Nuevo’s most powerful critics — lawmakers — have shown support for Rio Nuevo, we doubt they’re wedded to the name.
Even if they are, Tucsonans have a vastly different association with the words “Rio Nuevo.”
Here, “Rio Nuevo” carries the weight of $300 million in taxpayer dollars squandered on everything from travel and promo videos to plans for rainbow bridges, arenas, science centers, an aquarium and much more that were eventually scrapped.
This history is how the name “Rio Nuevo” has become the municipal version of the Corvair — shorthand for monumentally awful. Rio Nuevo is used as a synonym for governmental waste, and even people who don’t fully understand the ins and outs of the district’s history know that it’s not a compliment.
So the Nuevo Rio Nuevo, if we can call it that for now, has done a great deal, but the work isn’t finished. It has only about $50 million left.
Board members Fletcher McCusker and Mark Irvin told the Star last week that some of the original projects on the west side of the Santa Cruz River — going back to the plan voters approved in 1999 — are back on the drawing board, but conceived differently this time.
The east end of downtown is bustling with bars, restaurants and student housing, and McCusker said the challenge is how to leverage the modern streetcar, scheduled to begin running this summer, to get people to venture westward.
Rio Nuevo board members are talking about building recreations of the Convento, the Carrillo House, a charro ring and adding to the Mission Gardens. McCusker said he would like local governments, Rio Nuevo and private developers to create an overall plan. “This is the most optimistic I’ve been,” he said.
Any projects will have to be partnerships with other governmental entities, organizations or companies. Rio Nuevo simply doesn’t have the cash to spend on grandiose ideas and one-off deals, a limitation that will help keep discussions and projects on point.
“We get approached by so many people with ideas,” Irvin said. “I’m happy to have an initial conversation, maybe two, but beyond that we need to see money. We’re not getting anywhere if they’re looking to us to be the money.”
Instead of the grand vision, McCusker said the board is focused on what it can do. “We’re happy to talk about parking — and if that helps your project work, good,” he said.
Rio Nuevo, and again, we encourage a name change, appears to be pointed in a positive direction. We’re cautiously optimistic.