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Donations may keep aquarium plan afloat

Citizen Staff

A local group wants to take its proposal out of dry dock now that city has dropped a marine exhibit at the downtown Rio Nuevo project. Another site may be found.



The fish may yet swim in Tucson.

A local private group will likely continue its push for a privately funded aquarium here, even if the city has axed a California-planned aquarium complex from the $750 million Rio Nuevo downtown revitalization project.

A San Francisco firm’s proposal for a downtown Tucson aquarium is financially impractical, said City Manager Jim Keene in a memo to the City Council.

Shannan Marty, president of the Tucson-based Sonoran Sea Aquarium’s board of directors, said she’s glad the city apparently has abandoned the California firm’s bid to build its project, the Tucson Aquatic Center.

“We’ve been kind of waiting for this other project to be disposed of one way or another so we can figure out what we are going to do,” said Marty.

Boosters of the Sonoran Sea Aquarium, a proposal the city earlier rejected for Rio Nuevo, are vowing to keep pushing to build their $20 million project somewhere in the city.

The Sea Aquarium board will meet Monday to figure out its next step but will likely keep pursuing construction of a private aquarium somewhere in Tucson.

“We are not married to downtown,” she said.

The Sea Aquarium project would be built with private donations and will not carry a debt. It would feature marine life native to Arizona and the Sea of Cortez, Marty said.

Karen Thoreson, assistant city manager for downtown development, said Tucson Aquatic Center, the California proposal selected from three contenders to build an aquarium as part of the Rio Nuevo project, “probably was intending to carry too large a debt load to be sustainable, based on what we saw happening in other places.”

TAC projected carrying $34 million in debt, she said. Consultant studies commissioned by the city indicated an aquarium here likely would support only $4 million in debt.

In addition, Thoreson said, TAC recently indicated it would require $16.5 million in Rio Nuevo project funding, rather than the $10 million it had originally sought, and it would need the entire amount upfront.

Yet another factor in the city’s decision, she said, was TAC’s plan to build an aquarium pavilion first, and to build the aquarium later, when the pavilion had generated enough money to pay for it.

“There was no guarantee when they would actually build an aquarium,” she said.

Thoreson said she realizes there are some here who will be disappointed, but that “We had promised no projects that needed long-term public support. The decision took courage, but the recognition is that we have to use good business sense.”

She said tourism trends have changed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks.

“The market has changed since their (TAC’s) submission. Attendance has dropped in all sorts of venues internationally. It was a speculative venture to begin with, and has become much more risky.”

Thoreson said she hopes the public does not interpret the withdrawal of the aquarium from Rio Nuevo as a sign that the project as a whole is faltering.

“Just this week we approved full funding for the Fox Theatre renovation. They will carry no debt, and the Fox is moving forward.

“The Tucson Convention Center ticket office is under construction and expected to be done in March. The railroad depot is in the final throes of restoration, to be open next fall.”

In addition, the so-called Thrifty Block, a block of business structures along Broadway, has been advertised for renovation, “and private-sector investors have been coming forward in droves,” she said.

And more than 14 vacant acres at the northwest corner of the 62-acre Rio Nuevo South property, south of Congress Street and west of the Santa Cruz River, are expected to be available for development in February 2003.

Rio Nuevo project planners say that once more people live downtown, that will prove an incentive for retail development there.

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