Rio Nuevo rises from the ashes

Council member Steve Kozachik said, "What should have happened years ago, begins to happen. The taxpayer money will be spent on things in which it was intended."
Council member Steve Kozachik said, "What should have happened years ago, begins to happen. The taxpayer money will be spent on things in which it was intended."

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - An 11-page agreement may end 14 years of waste and mismanagement in a thing called Rio Nuevo.

There's little doubt Rio Nuevo is the biggest failure in Tucson history. By some estimates, $230 million has been wasted.

That's probably a dubious figure but there is no doubt Rio Nuevo wasted a lot of taxpayer dollars.

There was a great deal of optimism and celebration when voters overwhelmingly passed Rio Nuevo in 1999.

It made a lot of promises of a revitalized downtown, redeveloped city core and several cultural projects to induce tourism and instill pride in Tucson's heritage.

Over the years,  it morphed into a project for a $200 million shiny new, 700-room convention hotel, a new arena and a Tucson Convention Center we could all be proud of.

Problem is, the projects would be built with taxpayer money generated through the legislature approved Tax Incremental Financing District (TIF).

In 2006, it was estimated to be $400 million.

But if malfeasance were a crime, many city leaders might be facing jail time.

Tucson city leaders took control of Rio Nuevo, which the voters never intended. It was supposed to be run by an independent board. But the city wrested control and drove the project into the ground.

Much of the money can't be accounted for. Projects were planned, designed and then dropped.

The Great Recession ended all hopes of the new hotel. The numbers never penciled out.

A 2010 State Auditor General's Report charged the city with mismanagement and neglect. But it never found anything criminal.

The FBI is thought to be conducting an investigation but it won't confirm that.

The state stepped in and took control of Rio Nuevo away from the city because of incompetence.

It appointed a new Rio Nuevo Board made up of members appointed by the state house, senate and the governor.

But things still sputtered.

The city blamed the board. The board blamed the city. Lawsuits were filed and more than a million dollars has been spent on legal fees.

But tomorrow, Tucson's new mayor, new Ward VI council member and new chair of the Rio Nuevo board will likely sign an agreement putting the past in the past.

In the agreement, the Rio Nuevo Board says it will spent at the very least, $6 million in renovations at the TCC. That's likely only the starting point.

It will pay to finish Mission Gardens and other small projects which were on the original list.

It will end all litigation and agree to who owns what.

Rio Nuevo filed a $43 million claim against Tucson for several parcels of property. Those claims will end.

"What should have happened years ago, begins to happen," says Ward VI council member Steve Kozachik. "The taxpayer money will be spent on things in which it was intended."

But there are some in the community who have called for jail time, criminal charges and retribution against those who wasted city money.

That probably won't happen.

"We can't make it reappear," says Kozachik.

Much of the money was spent on design, mitigation and infrastructure work but not on projects.

"That's what the auditor general says was mismanagement," he says. "That was wasted money."

"It's wrong, but it's not criminal," he says. "It's stupid but not criminal."

The new board chair, Fletcher McCusker and new mayor Jonathan Rothschild are expected to sign the agreement moving it forward.

Today, the auditor general issued a call for a company to perform an audit on Rio Nuevo. It's required by law and the agreement doesn't make it go away.

That's the difference. This time there will be oversight.

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