Rio Nuevo maintains tradition with help of Legislature

As Arizona Legislators take steps this week to finalize the passage of a bill which will remove restrictions on the Rio Nuevo District, the District’s Board is demonstrating that nothing any really changed over the years.

Although the development by the District is supposed to be a public/private partnership, a recent deal they are working on to purchase Humberto Lopez’s empty and failed La Placita Village will likely have only one private partner; Lopez himself as the seller.

Discussions of the deal have been conducted in private with Lopez, Board members Janie Cox and Mark Irvin and the District’s attorney Mark Collins. Collins told the Board at Tuesday’s Board meeting that he has already racked up nearly ten hours meeting with Board members and La Placita stakeholders. Only yesterday was the public advised on the deal making and only yesterday did the Board vote to have Cox and Irvin “work with counsel to explore this possibility and report back to the full board. Both the County and the University of Arizona have expressed interest in partnering with Rio Nuevo on the La Placita redevelopment,” according to a statement released by the District.

Board member Jeff Hill was absent from the meeting and Alberto Moore was the lone dissenting vote.

So not only does it appear that private commercial interests will be left out of acquiring the property, which was the goal of the Rio Nuevo TIF District when it was first voted on by taxpayers, but not until this week was the public even aware of the District’s move to acquire the property.

Conveniently, in November, the District paid $40,000 for a group of “unbiased” experts who recommended the redevelopment of La Placita.

The Urban Land Institute found: “Rather than have La Placita sitting vacant as it is today, it was suggested that the UofA could relocate the School of Architecture, Performing Arts or Visual Arts to La Placita.”

While the District, with their lawyer, moved ahead quietly in discussions with the University of Arizona on the possible purchase of La Placita, at least Chris Sheafe and Chairman Fletcher McCusker left the Board meeting room “due to stated conflicts of interests” while the “remaining members agreed to take steps to explore the possibility of acquiring the La Placita complex,” according to the District’s statement.

According to sources, Lopez invested in McCusker’s latest venture Sinfonia Healthcare.

It was Board member Mark Irvin who had placed the La Placita item on the Board’s agenda. Cox made the motion to move ahead with the La Placita negotiations. According to attendees, Cox’s motion appeared to have been written ahead of time; before public discussion by the Board. Cox could not get another Board member to second her motion and finally, after what seemed like an eternity to observers, Irvin was forced to second the motion.

Sources report that it is highly unusual for the Board Chair to second a motion. Irvin served as chair due to McCusker’s conflict driven absence.

Moore said later that he would support investigating the possibilities of redevelopment of La Placita, but he was surprised that the District had already spent several hours in attorney’s fees for conversations with Board members and La Placita personnel. Moore felt it was inappropriate for the District to incur legal fees if in fact they were not already negotiating a deal.

While the Urban Land Institute had urged government officials in Tucson to create an atmosphere that would allow private interests develop much of the downtown area, those pleas have fallen on deaf ears. For too long, Pima County and the City of Tucson have kept a tight rein on any development as the area’s reputation for being business unfriendly spreads.

The Board also voted Tuesday to reject suggestions for a new name. The Board had sought to change the District’s name in order to have a fresh start. However with the latest backroom dealing, residents say that a name change would have only given more credence to the widely held belief that other than shutting Rio Nuevo down, in light of the Legislature decision to remove two taxpayer watchdogs on the Board, nothing will change for the general good.

After the Legislature passes SB 1351, Rio Nuevo will likely continue to benefit of a few well-connected characters in the name of the general good.

Rio Nuevo Board’s lobbyist, Jonathan Paton, worked on the proposed legislation and recruit the bill’s sponsors. According to legal experts, the proposed legislative changes appears to lift many of the spending specific restrictions Paton himself and his former colleagues put in place in 2009, after the District had squandered $265 million dollars intended for downtown development.

The Rio Nuevo Board instructed Paton to enlist lawmakers and craft legislation that would allow the TIF district to abandon the requirement that it participate in the development of a downtown Tucson hotel. Paton found Worsley, Melvin, Dave Bradley, Adam Driggs, Steve Farley, Gail Griffin, John McComish, Don Shooter, Yarbrough, and of course, Steve Pierce. Pierce was instrumental in removing watchdog Board members in 2012.

After having squandered the $265 million on hapless projects like Mission Gardens, which will not produce revenue and draw few taxpaying tourists. In 2010, state lawmakers prohibited Rio Nuevo from spending money on any projects until a hotel and arena were built.

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