Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Perhaps it’s time to dam up Rio Nuevo

When Tucson and South Tucson voters created the multipurpose facilities district dubbed Rio Nuevo in 1999, it was supposed to siphon off a percentage of state sales tax revenue for a period of 10 years and use that money to build several cultural amenities downtown.

The museums and such were supposed to serve as the anchor for downtown revitalization, making it the metro area’s entertainment, dining and cultural hub.

It was a good idea.

Thirteen years later (after a 12-year extension in 2006) it has become the worst financial and political scandal in the city’s history. A scandal with too many culprits to list and all of whom are likely to pay no penalty – political, civil or criminal – for their bungling.

This week’s ouster of two board members who were the most hell-bent on sticking their rio up the city of Tucson’s nuevo has given some hope that perhaps, finally, the district can accomplish something good now that sober, reasonable men have replaced the two hardliners.

But the district is such a steaming dung heap of debt, lawsuits, unfinished projects, dubious developer deals and disputed property ownership that it matters not the good intentions of the new board members. They’re being helicoptered in to save a ship that has run aground, capsized and cracked in half.

In other words, a lost cause.

The new board should not attempt to salvage Rio Nuevo, but instead begin preparations for its junking with the new legislative session in 2013.

It’s painful to argue so. The district remains a good idea. The city needs a new convention center and possibly an arena. The district would be an excellent vehicle for funding such projects. Without Rio Nuevo, the city will need to ask voters through a bond election to borrow money to get them done.

But voters would laugh themselves silly at the thought, considering the city’s handling of Rio Nuevo.

City leaders and the two new Rio Nuevo board members all said this week they were optimistic that the district can now begin moving forward.

But there are a lot of people in this town, not all of them hard-right conservatives like Sens. Frank Antenori and Al Melvin, who think the city’s mishandling of Rio Nuevo’s funds as criminal at worst, fiscally negligent at best.

And they want someone to pay a price. They’re like dogs on a bone and they’re not about to let go.

It will be impossible for the new board to move forward while dragging a $230 million anchor of outrage behind it.

It’s time to dam up Rio Nuevo, wait a few years for the anger and stench to subside, and then try some other way to fund fixing downtown.

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