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Tucson, county working to determine fate of 'the heart' of El Presidio Plaza
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Tucson, county working to determine fate of 'the heart' of El Presidio Plaza

Once seen as “the heart” of a planned renovation of the El Presidio Plaza downtown, the El Presidio Park fountain sits waterless and in a state of disrepair, enclosed by a chain-link fence.

Now, with the long-anticipated January 8th Memorial on track to open in time for the decade anniversary of the shooting, Pima County administrator Chuck Huckelberry is asking the city of Tucson to make a decision about the nearly-50-year-old sculpture’s future.

“Our position is it needs to be repaired or removed,” Huckelberry said. “I think our view of El Presidio is it needs to be a more open, welcome public gathering place. The fountain could play a part in that. It would need to be restored … and then maintained.”

The hulking sculpture, in the middle of the plaza that houses city and county buildings, has remained empty for the last few years because of concerns that leaking water could damage the concrete parking structure underneath.

Its maintenance has been the city’s responsibility as part of a half-century-old agreement, according to Huckelberry, who said the biggest concern has been the fact that it has attracted skateboarders, turning it into a nuisance and a liability.

Huckelberry said he does not have a preference on its future, calling it a “unique piece,” and joking that he has watched the water turn from blue to green during his decades in his position.

“The biggest problem is I don’t think anybody at this point has a good handle at how to repair it,” he said.

In a statement, Tucson spokesman Andy Squire said the city’s manager office is in the early stages of evaluating the requirements to repair the fountain and doesn’t have an estimated timeline, cost or potential funding sources for its repair.

“Once the evaluation is complete, the information will be provided to the mayor and council for their review and, if necessary, will be added to a future study session agenda for discussion,” he said.

The potential deaccession of the fountain has otherwise concerned some, including Demion Clinco, the CEO of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, who called the situation “frustrating.”

Clinco said he has reached out to the Southern Arizona Arts Foundation as well as the state’s historic preservation board, adding that he was told by the latter that it’s eligible to be included on the historic places list.

“It’s frustrating to hear this fountain needs to be removed because it has condition issues,” Clinco said. “When something isn’t maintained, that’s what happens.”

He said the fountain is one of Charles Clement’s most-recognizable public works in Tucson. The piece was one of five commissioned from local artists when El Presidio was being revamped as a public plaza in the late 1960s. Other pieces have been lost or broken.

The goal of the fountain was to create “an allegory to this region’s relationship with water and how precious water is,” according to Clinco, who said it is stylized with the brutalist architecture of the time period.

It has since remained an “indelible and iconic feature of the plaza,” he said.

“That fountain has really been the backdrop of people’s weddings and graduations, as well as protests and celebrations. It really is our civic space, and that fountain has played such an important role in that public space,” he said.

Plans were put in place to revamp the fountain alongside the January 8th Memorial, which serves as an ode to the 2011 shooting that left six Tucsonans dead and U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others wounded.

A master plan for the project from architecture firm Chee Salette states the Clement Fountain would sit “at the heart of the plaza,” and would be “expanded to create a water play area using recycled water collected on site.” Plans were scaled back after donations fell short after the Legislature failed to pass funding for the memorial.

Ron Barber, who was wounded in the shooting and now serves on the board of the memorial, said he has reached out to the city and the county and understands concerns about the repair, including hazards and costs.

But he personally would not like to see it go.

“I think it needs to be fixed,” he said. “When (the memorial) is done, there’s this really beautiful centerpiece as you enter the courthouse. The fountain sits besides it. If it isn’t fixed, it’s going to be pretty obvious that something is wrong here.”

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Contact reporter Justin Sayers at or 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.

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Justin, a two-time University of Arizona graduate, covers local government, focusing on the City of Tucson. He previously worked at the Louisville Courier Journal, Arizona Republic and Hartford Courant and has received several journalism awards.

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