By Michael Bryan
With the current controversies and investigations and audits and partisan bickering around Rio Nuevo, one can hardly fault some folks - even Tucson Democrats - for wanting to wash their hands of the whole vexing thing and just kill the program.
Let me try to convince you that it is a grave error to give up on Rio Nuevo, and we can and should fault those who want to kill the program.
What is Rio Nuevo? Most folks would describe it as an attempt to 'revitalize' Tucson's downtown. Some folks would recognize that it is a very large investment in that goal: about $250 million, so far. A slightly smaller number might know that it is a Tax Increment Finance district dedicated to that goal which has generated that investment.
What do I hope you will think about Rio Nuevo? That it is Tucsonans investing in Tucson's future.
Tucson has never had a vital downtown as a major metropolitan city. We had a downtown that worked for a large town many years ago, but that has long since died. We are not trying to 'revitalize' anything; we are now trying to create a vital urban core, essentially from scratch. That is a difficult project for which no one has a rulebook or blueprint. Many have tried in other cities - even here in Arizona - and failed far more miserably than we.
Where does the money come from? Tucsonans paying sales taxes in the TIF district. It's our money. And we have decided how to spend it - and should continue controlling that spending locally, not by remote control from Phoenix. We are spending the Rio Nuevo funds here in Tucson, on Tucson's future - and that is an unalloyed good thing.
Where would the money go if not for the Rio Nuevo TIF? To the general fund in Phoenix for whatever our wackadoodle legislature decided to spend it on. Probably for more tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful. Think that's a better use of our money? I sure don't.
Was the money really spent with "little to show for it" (as is so often claimed) if it was spent locally on local jobs, local ideas, and local contractors on infrastructural improvements, buildings, and projects right here in Tucson? Hell, I would rather dump a quarter billion down our sewers here in Tucson than send it to Phoenix.
Let there be no mistake: those who continue to support the Rio Nuevo TIF are fundamentally supporting the future of Tucson. Those who want to kill it, want to harm Tucson. If a local politician wants to end the Rio Nuevo TIF, they are no friend to the people of Tucson, nor of the people of Southern Arizona who look to Tucson as their metropole. Don't ever forget that, and don't let them use your frustration with the process and priorities so far undermine your support for Tucson's future.
More discussion after the click...
Much of people's frustration with the Rio Nuevo project has been a seeming lack of focus, and far too few results in the way of 'charismatic megafauna' projects. Rio Nuevo has too frequently focused creating a shifting cast of those few big developements that are believed to serve as the nucleus for 'revitalizing' a downtown: an arena, a new or expanded convention center and hotel, a science center/rainbow bridge, an aquarium/entertainment complex, etc.
I'm actually of the opinion that our failure to produce such developments may be a good thing. Over the last decade Tucson has studied, and rejected as viable options, many of the fadish centerpeices of redevelopment theory.
Urban core redevelopment, like any area of social science, has fads. We have been subject to several of those fads over the life of the Rio Nuevo project.
The fad current when Rio Nuevo started was the destination fad. You had to have edifying cultural distinations to which people would visit not only locally, but to which people from around the region, state, nation and world would be drawn. That tourism and local interest would form the basis for a revitalized downtown economy.
Pursuant to this fad, Rio Nuevo looked into several proposals for fantasitc destination spots: the Convento (which was actually built), a world-class aquarium (which, thankfully, wasn't), and a science center (which eventually metastazed, under the influence of the "landmark" variant of destination theory, into the infamous Rainbow Bridge), among other less memorable projects.
But tourism really isn't all that good a basis on which to base a vital urban core. It is not sustainable over a longer time horizon, people tire of the attractions, the jobs created are generally low-paying service jobs, and it does nothing to create reasons for people to live in the urban core, which is the sine qua non of real urban revitalization.
The next fad was the downtown as playground fad. This theory stated that if you put enough entertaining content in your downtown, local and regional people would flock there for the fun stuff and drop some dollars on local business ancillary to that entertaining venue. Thus we got a proposal for a downtown arena complex that would draw people to big downtown events and house new sports franchises.
The problem with the downtown as playground theory is that nobody wants to live near such a ruckus: you have a large immigration for the event, then everyone rushes back out after, leaving a bunch of trash and a big, vacant, unproductive wasteland. Such venues don't build a vital urban core, they make an area into an urban ghost town most of the time. Cities in the Phoenix metro, notably Mesa, have tried this, and while they have scored some major entertainment coups, they haven't suceeded in creating vital urban cores so much as expensive tax-payer subsidized boondogles that overwhelmingly benefit wealthy promoters and franchise owners.
The next fad, which we are still partly in the grip of, is the downtown as convention center fad. According to this theory, you can redevelop your downtown with a world-class convention and hotel venue. You will attract all sorts of business activity on which to base your urban core economy by having great facilities in which to put on big business events, such as conventions, trade-shows, exhibitions, and the like. These draw participants from all over the country and world to your town to drop money on your hotels and businesses. Currently our legislature has doubled down on this particular redevelopment fad by mandating that Tucson can only use Rio Nuevo money for improving our convention center and creating a downtown hotel to hold all those conventioneers.
The problems with the downtown as convention center fad has aspects of the prior fads, with some new wrinkles. Not only does it make one's urban core dependant on what is essentially business tourism, as in the destination fad, and create the same urban and wealth dynamics as the playground fad, it has a severe problem with competing destinations and oversupply in the market. Many other major cities have created such world-class convention destinations in hopes of redeveloping their cores and improving their tax base. The competition is fierce, pushing prices inexorably downward as supply expands, which has caused many cities to take a major bath on their convention center investments. And it doesn't really create a vital urban core in which people want to live, even if it does produce some impressive and pretty infrastructure and buildings.
So, as we can see, Rio Nuevo at various times has adopted these competing and overlapping fad visions of how to create a vital urban core. None of them work terribly well - at least not in isolation. All these fads draw important lessons from redevelopment efforts that have proven successful to one degree or another. The problem lies in attributing success to just one factor or approach to the problem. All of these fadish projects can be a successful component of creating a vital urban core, but none of them are enough on their own.
The thing that really creates a vital urban core is, well... building a vital urban core. That's confusingly tautological - and that's the problem. It's a process that builds and feeds on itself. Everyone knows where they want to get to, but there are so many moving parts to how to get there that it is tempting to reductively pluck out one component - destinations, entertainment, conventioneering - and lead with that aspect of the project as the start of something great. But it doesn't really work like that.
What works is having a whole community pushing from all directions to invest in the infrastructure, businesses, communities, and amenities that make a city's urban core a compelling, exciting, vital, economically vibrant, and pleasant place to live, work, and visit. Such a multidisciplinary, open-source, radically decentralized, human- and financial-capital-intensive process does not admit of easy solutions. Nor does it lend itself to a forensic accounting. It requires lots of not-so-noticable investments (like improved utilities, better streetscaping, new transport infrastucture, etc.). It requires patience. It requires perseverance.
What works is to innovate quickly, try a bunch of things in parallel, fail fast and often, and capitalize on what seems to be working for your city. There will be a lot of waste, a lot of failures, and a lot of false starts. There will be an apparent lack of much to show for it, before suddenly and increasingly there is a whole lot to show for it. Above all, city leaders - in government, in business, in communities - can't ever give up.
It seems like many in Tucson are on the verge of giving up on the goal of creating a vital, workable, livable, prosperous urban core in Tucson. We have had lots of false starts, lots of faddish thinking, but we are feeling our way toward a theory and practice of urban developement that is unique to Tucson and dependent upon the energy, resourcefulness, and passions of its citizens. And that's the way it should be. And it's showing results.
But we can't get there if the money that fuels the public investiments we need to make it real gets cut off, or is directed exclusively by distant and hostile Phoenix politicians, or those seeking favor with them. We need control over Rio Nuevo to remain local. And we need the money to keep flowing from Tucson taxpayers into Tucson's future. We need Rio Nuevo.