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A new facade on Rio Nuevo won’t mollify legislators

Citizen Staff Writer
Our Opinion

The city’s desperate attempts to fend off legislative tampering with Rio Nuevo are making the operation look even more haphazard.

The move to shuffle operation of downtown redevelopment from the city back to the little-known, largely inactive Rio Nuevo Multipurpose District Facilities Board will not persuade legislative foes that real change is occurring.

Instead, the move is likely to be seen for what it is: a cosmetic facade change that doesn’t address the core problems, i.e., a drifting set of priorities delayed and derailed by a sour economic hole deeper and vaster than anyone could have foreseen.

Rio Nuevo is not sinking. But it clearly is adrift.

A brief history lesson: Rio Nuevo was launched in 1999 using tax increment financing in which a portion of new sales tax revenue in an area is diverted from the state to the Rio Nuevo district – essentially downtown.

From the onset, the district board asked the city to operate Rio Nuevo to avoid avoid hiring staff members, some of whom would duplicate city employees.

The city manager became executive director of the Rio Nuevo district; the city finance director became the district treasurer; and the City Council, its operating board.

When legislators expressed dissatisfaction with progress, the City Council panicked. City Manager Mike Hein was thrown overboard last week. And the council tossed responsibility for Rio Nuevo back to the district board. Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic comes to mind.

The board hadn’t met since Dec. 2. Dan Eckstrom, a board member for nine months, had yet to attend his first meeting. Nonetheless, board members hastily called a meeting last week. Its four members immediately adjourned into a legally iffy closed executive session to figure out what to do next.

When the public was allowed back in, board member Jeff DiGregorio called for “better transparency and better accountability.” That would be a good first step. But meeting behind closed doors engenders neither transparency nor accountability.

The legislative wolves are baying at Rio Nuevo’s door, demanding progress. Firing the city manager and shuffling operation of Rio Nuevo to a well-meaning but inactive board won’t cut it.

The city cannot be totally removed from Rio Nuevo decisions. But the district board must take an active leadership role. In doing so, it must remember that voters approved the district based on promises of cultural attractions west of downtown – attractions that now have been back-burnered.

Move ahead with expansion of the Tucson Convention Center. Begin construction of a convention hotel. Use new revenue from those projects to resurrect the museums and other cultural amenities.

This now has become a desperate lifesaving effort – and unless the Legislature can be persuaded the patient is worth saving, the prognosis is not encouraging.

Firing the city manager and resurrecting an inactive board won’t solve the problems facing Rio Nuevo.

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