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UA accepts reality on science center

Citizen Staff Writer

Teya Vitu

Citizen Staff Writer

Finally, the City Council and the University of Arizona are on the same page on building a science center at Tucson Origins on the West Side.

Until April, they were miles apart, even if they weren’t fully aware of it.

UA kept coming up with more grandiose proposals, never letting cost stand in the way.

The City Council didn’t want to spend more than $80 million on a science center, even if it never drew a public line in the sand with the dollar figure.

Until recently, expectations were that Rio Nuevo would get $120 million in tax increment financing.

“Dream on a world-class level and limit yourself to $120 million,” said John Jones, director of the Rio Nuevo project from 1999 to 2003. “I think the dream didn’t mesh with the financial reality.”

In 2002, then-UA President Peter Likins and Alexis Faust, executive director of the Flandrau Planetarium, sold the city on the idea of bringing a world-class UA science center to Rio Nuevo.

World class? Absolutely. Go for it. Only problem? Tucson as a whole has never reconciled itself with the fact that world class these days costs a whole lot.

Likins and Faust knew that but forgot to take the Tucson mind frame into account when proposing the $350 million Rainbow Bridge in 2005.

“We went off in a very ambitious direction to build a world-class science center and we reached way beyond the city’s capacity to go with us to those heights,” said Likins, a champion of the now-dead bridge project, recently. “We were disposed to the view that Tucson was ready to step up. Perhaps we lost our view for what Tucson is ready for.”

Right on, Pete. Tucson’s not a big-spending town for any reason. But is big-spending on a science center really necessary? Jones thinks not.

“I think the whole issue of reaching as high as you can got separated from the science center itself with the bridge,” Jones said. “The problem is you don’t need an iconic image to sell or promote science. Nor do you need an iconic image to attract tourists. I can’t fault the university for looking to that iconic image. The reason Rio Nuevo suffers is it’s hard for the public to grasp the layers.”

The Rainbow Bridge tied the City Council into knots. The community generally railed against the extravagance of a 370-foot high arch over Interstate 10 and Santa Cruz River and the cost.

“I remember the first time I heard about (the Rainbow Bridge). I said, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ ” Mayor Bob Walkup said. “We are still struggling with money. The iconic thing surrounded Rio Nuevo for about a year. Unless there was a miracle, there was no money for it.”

Funny thing: The council never outright rejected the Rainbow Bridge. From December 2005 to August 2006, the council essentially waited for the project to go away but never pushed it out the door. By luck, Robert N. Shelton became UA’s president in July 2006 and scrapped the bridge idea within two months.

Shelton was a newcomer, apparently not in tune with Tucson’s ultra frugality. He turned around and proposed a $170 million science center in December. Hey, half price, great deal.

Maybe. But we don’t talk in terms of $170 million for a building in Tucson. Aha, Shelton must have said, I get it. In April, he came back with a $130 million deal, putting the science center and Arizona State Museum in the same building. The science center would cost $100 million.

Still more than ideal for the Tucson City Council, which never wanted to spend more than $80 million. But now the council had a Rio Nuevo pot worth $581 million to play with, because of an addition of 12 years of tax revenue. The council will likely give a nod of approval to the $130 million science center/state museum proposal.

“A lot of people from the neighborhood, particularly the West Side, had a whole lot of excitement (in 2002),” Jones said. “That science center would engage students. This was planting the flag of science in the public school system. On one side, there was always a sense of promoting UA and science but there was also a very deep sense to act as a catalyst for education for Tucson.”

Teya Vitu has surfed the economic development waves in Tucson since 2000 and has plumbed the depths of Rio Nuevo for a bit over one year.

• See a video discussion by UA and Rio Nuevo officials of the downtown science center and museum at tucsoncitizen.com.


November 1999: Voters approve Rio Nuevo. The measure mentioned a Sonoran Sea Aquarium and a Universe of Discovery, each pegged at $10 million.

December 2002: Aquarium idea scrapped. The Tucson Aquatic Center, which replaced the Sonoran Sea Aquarium, was a proposed $66.3 million aquarium, pavilion and scuba center.

January 2003: UA determined that Flandrau Science Center had to move to survive. Destination: Rio Nuevo

May 2003: $60 million science center idea unveiled by architect Ralph Appelbaum.

July 2003: Appelbaum’s “Bridge of Knowledge” is pegged at $103 million and would span Interstate 10 and the Santa Cruz River.

September 2003: A study estimates the science center would cost $72 million to build, with $20 million of that coming from the city. The city’s share would be paid with tax increment financing derived from retaining a portion of sales tax revenue usually sent to the state.

October 2003: The price: $82 million for the center, which will feature 13 exhibits along a footpath and bridge connecting the west side of the Santa Cruz River with the east side of Interstate 10. Then-UA President Peter Likins was trying to raise $20 million in endowments.

Early 2004: $96 million and $104 million pricetags are bandied about.

May 2004: Architect Rafael Viñoly replaces Appelbaum.

October 2004: No estimated price tag at first revealing of Rainbow Bridge.

September 2005: Rough estimate of $200 million for Rainbow Bridge.

December 2005: Price grows to $350 million.

August 2006: New UA President Robert N. Shelton scuttles Rainbow Bridge.

December 2006: Shelton proposes a $228 million package that includes science center and Arizona State Museum

April 2006: That proposal is slashed to $130 million.

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