Trigger warning: Hobbs' Rio Nuevo moves produce flashbacks for some

My dog does this thing. When it rains, he remembers the days before he was rescued from the desert by Pima County Animal Care. They found him matted, smelly and starving. So thunder rolls and the dog shakes. He doesn’t notice he’s warm and dry.

The same thing happens to Michael Guymon when you talk to him about changing the way things are done on the Rio Nuevo Multipurpose Facilities District Board. To be perfectly honest, the same thing happened to me when Gov. Katie Hobbs this month decided to make four new appointments to the board.

Guymon and I were like “wha-wha-wha-what are you doing to Rio Nuevo? Don’t you remember what it was like before?” Guymon is now president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce but back in the mid-to-late 1990s, he served on Downtown’s original Business Improvement District board. After that he was Councilmember Fred Rondstadt’s chief of staff and the office took all sorts of incoming about what the hell was happening to Rio Nuevo.

So when he heard the news about the board shake up, he (we) started to shake, spiritually if not physically.

“I’ve seen Rio Nuevo in a very desperate place and I worry if we play politics with it, we could see that again,” Guymon said. 

Hear ya brother.

Enter Fletcher McCusker, chairman of the board and reappointed by Hobbs to remain among the overseers of the taxing district. He’s ready to tell people to chill the heck out.

“I think the chamber got it wrong,” McCusker said of Guymon’s original reaction in a story that appeared on TucsonSentinel.com. By extension, he’s saying I got it wrong, too. “It’s naive to think that the governor isn’t going to use her appointments to put her stamp on things.”

What’s more, McCusker said Hobbs’ move prompted the Arizona legislative leadership to redo its appointments, putting two members Hobbs replaced right back on Rio Nuevo’s board — so it’s now rolling with its full complement of members for the first time since 2012.

The hardly horrible status quo maintains its majority 5-4. There are four Republicans, four Democrats and McCusker, an independent.

Then McCusker ticked off the names of Hobbs appointments and put his stamp of approval on them. Wealth manager Taunya Villicana serves on a bunch of boards and committees around town. She knows how this works. Corky Poster is a renowned Tucson architect. He and his protege Shay Jimenez both bring design experience. Of Hotel Congress owner Richard Oseran, McCusker said: “There would be no Downtown Tucson without Dick Oseran.”

Don’t worry. Give it a shot.

Oseran says Hobbs appointed the new members to help and provide new perspective.

“She’s not just pulling things out of the sky and saying these people should be on the board,” he said. I do feel like I have a unique perspective.”

Yeah, buying and turning Hotel Congress into a Downtown destination when for years it was the only thing at all down there almost certainly counts as “a unique perspective.”

For 10 years, the board worked without much in the way of politics, in part because its ranks were picked by a Republican governor, State House speaker and Senate president. Hobbs replaced four of those folks with her own people. Democrats.

Be real, though. The board’s very existence is a direct result of partisanship. 

Rio Nuevo was originally a city program, but in 2009 the Arizona Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer passed a law seizing control of the board. That was a partisan political move timed well to hurt three Democratic City Council members up for re-election with then Republican megadonor Jim Click playing a huge role in that campaign season. 

This is the part where I usually decry radical Republicans. Sorry. This move worked out fine correcting a lot of false starts and goofy ideas.

Good plan gone bad

Rio Nuevo wasn’t a crazy idea. Every other downtown in America had been redeveloped after urban flight in the 1960s and 1970s left them husks of their former selves. If cities as diverse as Flagstaff and New York could do it, so could Tucson.

So they seized on an law that allowed Glendale to build the Phoenix Coyotes arena. It was called tax increment financing. 

The plan was to draw up a district running from Downtown’s core along East Broadway to Park Mall, also taking in El Con Mall. Then a base year would be established. Call it Fiscal Year 1999. Half of the money raised in state sales tax revenue above collected from that district above base year revenues would go to Rio Nuevo. Additionally, city sales tax revenues from the Midtown district would pay for Downtown revitalization.

In total, $120 million in tax revenues was expected to be raised. Additionally, city ventures like the Sonoran Sea Aquarium would raise additional dollars to pay for it.

Yes, the Sonoran Sea Aquarium. 

Yeah, that’s where things got hinky.

The original Rio Nuevo ballot question included a plan to build an aquarium featuring critters from the Gulf of California and (wait for it) aquatic life from the Sonoran Desert. Tourists can’t get enough of moss and minnows.

The upshot is that anyone looking for the Sea Aquarium, it can be found next to the IMAX theater at the foot of the $350 million Rainbow Bridge/science center shooting over Interstate 10 in a great arch.

None of it happened. They all failed very publicly on “Page 1, above the fold,” and then did so repeatedly over 10 years.

The problem with Rio Nuevo was that the city management spent so much time and money looking for that big sexy anchor to draw people Downtown that people lost sight of what was happening. It didn’t help that that progress was impossible to see.

The city didn’t start collecting the Rio Nuevo tax until 2003 and when the money started coming in that cash went to pay for the least sexy public program – underground infrastructure well out of view.

The rest was piecemeal public-private partnerships that got savaged by the one remaining local print newspaper. Every incentive agreement struck between the city and a private developer was treated a “sweetheart deal, done behind closed doors.” All incentive projects are sweetheart deals done behind closed doors. Most of Tucson’s economic development strategy depends on sweetheart deals done behind closed doors.

No, it wasn’t fair, but it was impossible to make that argument when the city couldn’t figure out where the money was going. They lost millions. By that I don’t mean millions of dollars of red ink. I mean the city lost it like a set of keys in a seldom-used couch. McCusker’s favorite, which I’d forgotten about, was how Rio Nuevo money ended up in the general fund, which should never have happen.

Auditors cracked open books and no doubt ran away screaming “My eyes! My eyes!” The FBI got involved, though McCusker said investigators dropped it because they could only conclude the city of Tucson was incompetent and not corrupt.

One columnist’s story

I have a weird personal history with Rio Nuevo.

In 2011, when I was running the communications shop for the Pima County Democratic Party, I wrote up a framework for a survey a professional pollster out of  New York would take to voters. It included an open ended question: What do you think is the biggest issue facing Tucson?

A few weeks later I was on a conference call with local Dem leadership and the pollster, Global Strategies Inc.’s braintrust.

From New York, I heard basically the following statement: “We’ve polled municipal elections all over the country and we’ve never asked an open-ended question about top issues and found anything as unpopular with voters as Rio Nuevo. It was an open-ended question, which means they know what it is by name and what they know about it they hate.”

So I decided it might be smart to tell the story about what was actually going on and called the city asking for their pamphlet detailing quickly and with graphics, what projects were done, which ones were under construction and things in the works.

I figured they’d have one ready for skeptical members of the public. Hah. I had to put in a formal public records request and a week later the city sent me more than 100 pages of budget line items.

So there wasn’t a glossy quick read to show a doubting public things were happening Downtown. The communications effort was farmed out project-by-project to individual PR firms so the city couldn’t tell the overall story.

The city couldn’t even tell voters what the hell was going on, which meant it was worse than Republican candidates were saying.

Not a child of the ’60s

My original intersection with Rio Nuevo happened right at the start and gets to one of the great myths of Rio Nuevo. The morning after Election Day 1999, the Tucson Citizen editors came to me with an assignment. Rio Nuevo passed. Republican Bob Walkup was mayor. “Tucson is open for business.”

It was another way of saying, those green environmentalists’ days were done.

Rio Nuevo wasn’t some left-wing boondoggle. It was a project designed and delivered by the business community. From 2001 to 2005, Republicans even had a working majority on the City Council.

Republican Mayor Bob Walkup was joined by Councilmembers Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar, plus independent Carole West had thrown in with them to provide a decisive fourth vote.

No. Stop. I’m not saying Democrats were blameless. The wheels absolutely came off the Rio Nuevo wagon after Democrats took full control of the Council in 2005. But the project was wobbling before that.

Yes. Downtown redevelopment strategies blew apart completely when a Democratic Council unspooled into tribalism.

So when the Legislature took over, it wasn’t like local leaders could say “Hey! No fair!” All I could strategize is “shut up and change the subject.”

Of course, things were happening Downtown. Projects were afoot like the Fox Theatre, the train depot and Maynards Kitchen, plus all that infrastructure was in place to support what development did happen.

None of that mattered. Rio Nuevo long ago lost the public trust. 

The good borrow, the great steal

Then the new board took over and has since done a good job. They straightened out the books and established transparency that started to regain the public trust as projects came on line and Rio Nuevo started moving in a direction that could be discerned.

No wheel was reinvented and captive killer whales were not required.

“Everything we’ve done, we’ve stolen from San Diego,” McCusker said of the board’s decision to focus on private sector projects into Downtown. Their focus wasn’t bridges or aquariums, it was music and dining.

That’s what people head there for at night. They go to catch a concert and grab a drink afterwards. They go for a meal and… to grab a drink afterwards. 

The Rio Nuevo board has brought more than $1 billion of private sector investment down and the TIF revenue has been the bait to get those partnerships rolling. The City Council also included an overlay zone to encourage higher density development.

McCusker says that today 9 of Uber’s top 10 destinations are Downtown.

It’s not like the board has done anything partisan Republican. Right now there’s a deal working to support the Mexican-American Heritage Museum. Y’know: Woke.

Not everything has followed the plan. The Rio Nuevo board reached an agreement in 2015 with developer Allan Norville to build a permanent home for the AGTA Gem Show. It hasn’t happened and the board has been in legal wranglings for the last two years demanding the project be built or $2.5 million get returned to the district.

There’s also a lawsuit involving a 2022 deal with the owners of the Citizen Hotel, seeking $333,333 in restitution.

Vision thing

So what would a new slate of board members bring?

“I feel honored to be on the board,” said architect Shay Jimenez. “I decided to do this because I love Tucson. I want to start everything on a really positive note.”

Yeah, I’m not sensing any sort of coordinated partisan assault in the offing.

One of the things I’ve been wondering is if Rio Nuevo hasn’t, perhaps, overcorrected leaving the redevelopment effort without a sexy mid-sized Downtown anchor to give the area a sense of place. George H.W. Bush derisively called it a “vision thing.”

Think more of a home to the Tanque Verde Swap Meet than sea aquarium.

Yet Oseran politely swept that idea aside because he knows what’s worked and what’s been tried to no avail.

“People are moving Downtown – there’s been a whole dearth of bars, clubs. What we need is retail,” Oseran said. That would bring people to the city center during the day.

OK. Well. I will take a discussion – even heated ones – about whether to focus on restaurants and retail rather than whether democracy should be destroyed. 

For her part, Jimenez said she’s not thinking far ahead and seems highly intent on avoiding the kind of controversy that would get her name in the news.

Guymon said the 2010 board brought to redevelopment was a sense of business. The board members knew how to negotiate deals without chasing off partners by asking for more than would pencil out.

Oseran has run Hotel Congress since he bought it in 1985. 

Poster and Jimenez work on budgets every day. And Villicana runs a wealth management company. One would think she understands numbers.

Fix it anyway

The adage goes, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Then again, many successful operations from the U.S. military to General Electric run on the mantra “if it’s not broken, constantly fix it.”

Maybe Rio Nuevo shouldn’t be coasting on a reputation of a job well done.

McCusker is right about one thing: 

“It’s going to be interesting to see how this goes.”

Forgive me, Guymon and a 30-pound woolly mutt named Ragnar for the occasional shakes. We remember the storms.