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El Rio golf course planned as new Grand Canyon University site

City is in talks to sell, lease El Rio to private Grand Canyon University

  • Updated

Location of the El Rio Golf Course. Arizona Daily Star

Tucson's El Rio Golf Course appears to be the leading contender to become the home of a new campus of Grand Canyon University.

City officials have been negotiating with the university to sell or lease the west-side course to the Phoenix-based private Christian university.

The city proposed the golf course once it was revealed Tucson was on the university's short list for expansion, said City Councilwoman Regina Romero. Grand Canyon officials could not be reached for comment.

"When they asked us what site, we offered them the El Rio golf course," Romero said. "I think it's a really great opportunity to bring in high-paying jobs and economic development."

El Rio opened in the 1930s and was the original home to Tucson's annual PGA tournament. The city took it over as a municipal course in 1968.

Last fall, the City Council voted to consider converting El Rio into a hybrid nine-hole course and park if a private management group couldn't be found to run the city's golf courses. The city is still in the process of reviewing proposals.

Although early in the negotiations, Romero said, the city has identified some of the things it would like to see from the university in any deal.

Among the things the city is requesting are bike and pedestrian paths connecting to west-side parks, money for necessary infrastructure improvements at Murrieta Park and public access to the university's intramural sports fields.

"I am making sure it is going to be good experience with the neighbors and their needs. First and foremost, we want some gates down," Romero said. "We want that access for the neighbors. … We are going to look for those things to show a tangible infrastructure-win for the neighborhood."

An agreement would mean the end of golf at El Rio because the university plans would require the entire 109 acres.

A potential roadblock to any deal would be what would happen with the First Tee program.

The Tucson Conquistadores, which sponsor the First Tee program, signed a 15-year lease with the city and put about $1 million of improvements into El Rio for the youth golf program. Several years still remain on the contract.

Councilman Steve Kozachik said the city shouldn't be breaking contracts just because a better deal came along.

"We have a contract with the Conquistadores, and we need to honor that," Kozachik said. "It might not be illegal to break it, but it certainly would be in bad faith."

Assistant City Manager Albert Elias said while it's still early in the negotiations, one thing is for certain: It would be a boon for the city.

"We're excited," Elias said. "It's a great economic development opportunity and educational opportunity, and both are important to this community."

Grand Canyon has about 24,000 student attending at its Phoenix campus. It hopes to open a second campus in the fall of 2014 with 1,000 students and 250 employees. Once built out in 2020, the campus could have up to 6,000 students and 1,000 employees.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or

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