Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Tucson didn’t ‘lose’ Grand Canyon University

Correction and clarification: Journalists who misread their history do so at their peril. The original version of this opinion piece misstated the nature of the El Rio Golf Course protests in 1970. The article has been updated with the accurate information. The author regrets the error and is ashamed.

That Shakespeare, he sure knew how to turn a useful phrase. Much ado about nothing is probably one of his best.

A good example of making a lot of noise about very little is the recent garment rending in some quarters of town about the supposed loss of Phoenix-based Grand Canyon University.

According to the Tucson-sucks-because-Democrats-are-in-charge crowd, Grand Canyon University’s proposed new campus at the city’s beleaguered El Rio golf course was a done deal until city council bungling killed it.

That’s not even close to true. But why let facts get in the way of scoring a few cheap political points?

Here’s what really happened. Grand Canyon’s parent company announced in December its intention to add a second campus in the East Valley of metro Phoenix. But in the announcement, it also opened the door for cities outside metro Phoenix to submit a bid.

Tucson, through the regional economic development agency TREO, threw its hat in the ring. A few site possibilities were kicked around, including in Oro Valley and the El Rio course on West Speedway Boulevard.

In May, the Arizona Daily Star broke the news that El Rio was the primary site under consideration and a group of West Side residents objected. Those objections caused Councilwoman Regina Romero to pull her support for the site and the rest of the council went along with it because El Rio is in her ward.

Grand Canyon continued to consider other Tucson sites. El Rio was off the table, but the possible location of a GCU campus in Tucson was not.

The university ultimately chose a site in Mesa. The site it picked is a smoking deal. It’s part of a large 5-square-mile mixed-use development at the old General Motors test track near Gateway Airport. The master plan for Eastmark includes multiunit housing, single family homes, business parks, retail centers, parks and now, a Christian college.

Tucson’s offer, whether at El Rio or elsewhere, couldn’t come close to what Eastmark offered the college.

Interestingly, Mesa played no role in recruiting GCU, it was all Eastmark, and Mesa officials were rather lukewarm about the announcement.

Mesa is trying to recruit universities to open satellite campuses in its downtown as part of its downtown revitalization effort (sound familiar?) and the GCU campus competes with that effort.

It should be noted that GCU never said it was going to open two campuses, one in the East Valley and one in Tucson. It said it wanted to open a new campus in the East Valley (a lot of its central Phoenix students commute from the East Valley) but would also consider bids from communities other than the East Valley.

The fact that GCU chose Mesa shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

So the narrative that Tucson “lost” GCU because of the minor controversy over El Rio is patently false.

If Tucson made an error, it wasn’t withdrawing El Rio from site consideration, it was considering El Rio at all.

Communities forget their histories at their peril and Tucson and TREO didn’t know their history when they chose El Rio.

The golf course was the cause for months of protest and acrimony in the early 1970s. Latino activists from El Rio’s adjacent neighborhoods in the late 1960s helped Democrats get control of the city council and then wanted a return on their political investment – paved streets in their neighborhoods and a community park. They said they were promised that the once-segregated El Rio Golf Course, which the city purchased in 1968, would be converted to a park.

When the city reneged, there were weeks of course sit-ins, protest marches, packed city council meetings and candlelight vigils (after police in riot gear blocked access to the course to prevent another sit-in) to protest the golf course.

A lot of the activists who led that failed fight in the 1970s still live in those neighborhoods and the news that the golf course they so fervently fought over would be replaced with a Christian college rather than the park they always wanted cheesed them off. The 1970 protests only ended when the city agreed to build what is now Joaquin Murrieta Park, 1400 N. Silverbell Road, and the El Rio Neighborhood Center, 1390 W. Speedway Blvd, next to the golf course. Nevertheless, the city’s GCU negotiation opened an old wound and was dismissive of the neighborhood’s wishes all over again.

Their objection to El Rio as a possible GCU site was understandable. But the objection and the council’s reaction were not the cause of GCU choosing the Mesa site. It was the quality of Eastmark’s offer. Moreover, GCU has not ruled out Tucson for campus expansion in the future.

So Tucson didn’t lose anything and to try to claim that it did is indeed making much ado about nothing.

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