Battered by an unforgiving world economic crisis the likes of which hasn’t been seen for eight decades, Rio Nuevo is going back to its basics.
Museums – seen as a way to attract out-of-town visitors and celebrate Arizona’s centennial in three years – have been put on hold.
Instead, limited funds are being earmarked for projects that will generate money – a decision that makes sense but will be tough for some to accept.
Much of the funding for Rio Nuevo comes from tax-increment financing. The city keeps a share of increased sales tax revenue collected downtown and along East Broadway – revenue that usually would be sent to the state.
The numbers tell the grim story: Money from the tax has plunged from $16 million in 2006 to $8.6 million in 2008. Bonds have been sold so work can commence on Rio Nuevo without waiting for all the revenue to come in – but with sharply decreased revenue available to repay those bonds, the work must be delayed or scaled back.
Given that, City Manager Mike Hein did the right thing when he put on hold construction of Mission San Agustin, the University of Arizona Science Center/State Museum, the Arizona History Museum and the Tucson Children’s Museum.
Instead, the limited money will be used in and around the Tucson Convention Center – mostly for a new arena and convention center hotel.
That’s not popular with West Side advocates – but it’s logical.
Those projects should make TCC and downtown far more salable to conventions, trade shows, performances, sporting events and large meetings – all of which would bring new revenue into the tax increment financing pot.
But it is crucial that the museums not be forgotten. They were the key element in winning voter approval of Rio Nuevo almost a decade ago and remain an important promise to residents living west of Interstate 10.
The goal was to build not only a thriving retail and commercial district, but also a tribute to Tucson’s storied past. The museums and historic re- creations were to fill that role.
The modern streetcar line that will run from north of the University of Arizona through downtown and west of I-10 is key to joining the museum campus to the rest of downtown.
So it was helpful for City Councilwoman Regina Romero to insist that her colleagues include language ensuring that work will continue on a bridge the streetcar will use to cross the Santa Cruz River.
The museums are not dead, only waiting for economy to catch up with the plans.
Rio Nuevo is struggling – partly because the city has not maintained a clear vision, but mostly because the economy has worked against it.
Focusing on convention- and business-related projects now will ensure a strong financial base when the recession ends.