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Tucson Origins museums put on hold due to spiraling economy

Dreams of celebrating the state centennial in 2012 with a collection of Tucson Origins museums have collapsed with the downward spiraling economy.

All intentions to build Mission San Agustín, a University of Arizona Science Center/Arizona State Museum, Arizona History Museum and Tucson Children’s Museum on the West Side have been delayed indefinitely, City Manager Mike Hein said.

“It’s not in my interest or desire to stall on this,” Hein said.

The worldwide economic straits have cut Rio Nuevo tax increment financing in half and made city leaders choose how to proceed with downtown revitalization.

The City Council in February told Hein to focus on the Tucson Convention Center expansion, a TCC hotel and a new Tucson Arena. They made no specific pronouncement about Tucson Origins, but UA President Robert N. Shelton the same day suspended work on the science center, which had been set to start in summer.

“The science center goes to the back burner,” Rio Nuevo director Greg Shelko said. “So does all that other work (with the other museums). They are not projects we can do today. What museums we are going to build and when we are gong to build them, that is a conversation for another day.”

In the next week, the city should receive the pro-forma report from Garfield Traub Development and DLR Group describing how large a revenue bond the the anticipated TCC Revenue could support.

“Until we know how or when or if a hotel can be financed, it’s hard to make other investment strategies,” Hein said.

Annual Rio Nuevo tax increment financing has plummeted from a peak $16 million in 2006 to the present $8.6 million. The city issued an $80 million TIF-backed bond in December, already reshuffled the spending priorities once and now is reassigning those funds again, largely toward the TCC projects, Shelko said.

Councilwoman Regina Romero, whose ward includes Origins, in February agreed with focusing on the convention center but is dismayed that Origins has dropped off the radar.

“Nowhere in the (council) motion does it say we are going to put all the projects on the West Side on the back burner,” Romero said.

Romero added a clause to the February council motion to make sure infrastructure work continues to link Origins with the TCC. That primarily involves building a $12 million Cushing Street bridge across the Santa Cruz River.

The bridge in fall was allocated $10 million from the $80 million bond but in December that was reduced to $1.6 million for design and engineering. A 2009 bond would supply construction funds, but now no Rio Nuevo bonds are planned for this year.

Hein said the city was looking for transportation funds and federal economic stimulus funds to build the Cushing Street bridge, which is planned to carry the streetcar to the West Side.

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