Friday, June 11, 2010

Tucson lacks "the vision thing" but proposed charter changes won't remedy the problem

In the 29 years I have lived in Tucson, I have seen the city's fortunes ebb and flow like the ocean tides. No where has this cycle of growth and decay been more evident than in downtown Tucson. Over the years, many businesses and revitalization initiatives have come and gone regardless of how successful or popular they were.

A case in point: long before Rio Nuevo and Second Saturdays, there were the Tucson Arts District Partnership (TADPI) and Downtown Saturday Nights.

Both Rio Nuevo and TADPI were charged with breathing new life into downtown. TADPI focused primarily on downtown revitalization by showcasing Tucson artists, hosting downtown arts and music events (like Downtown Saturday Nights), and beautifying downtown with mural projects and pop-up galleries in vacant buildings.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a viable strip of shops and galleries along the east end of Congress Street-- Yikes Toys, Picante, Berta Wright Gallery, Pink Adobe Gallery, and others. Downtown Saturday Night attendees visited these shops and perused the wares exhibited by street vendors. One by one these business folded or moved.

Downtown Saturday nights and the other TADPI projects were wildly popular but were mysteriously discontinued in the 1990s.

Rio Nuevo was created in 1999 when voters approved a special tax increment district and began accumulating sufficient funding to support projects in 2004, according to the city's website. Rio Nuevo has had far more money than TADPI ever did but also has had less focus and much more bad press (thanks to a vendetta by the Arizona Daily Star). Second Saturdays is a downtown business initiative-- and not a Rio Nuevo project-- but projects occurring simultaneously downtown and tend to be lumped together in the minds of citizens.

By 2008, this same strip of shops on Congress Street (which had been vacant for years) had been reborn and housed four galleries, a coffee shop, a hair salon, and a trendy clothing resale shop, along with a few bars. Creative events (1, 2, 3, 4) drew hundreds of Tucsonans downtown to enjoy the art and check out the music and bar scene. To us supporters, downtown appeared to be experiencing a resurgence. By early 2010, seven of these businesses were closed or relocated by a developer to make way for a trendy sports bar, whose owner was glorified in a Daily Star puff piece this week.

While other cities are able to revitalize their downtowns (1, 2), Tucson's beleaguered city core suffers from the fits and starts. This leads long-time Tucsonans ask themselves: "Why does Tucson keep re-inventing the wheel? Why can't we get it right?"

Why? In my opinion, Tucson suffers from the lack of a visionary leader. Yes, we have had plenty of politicians, plans, proposals, and committees, but if you look behind the glossy PR of these initiatives, you'll usually find that they benefit special interests, and not the city as a whole.

Tucson's City Manager form of government is inherently flawed. Our Mayor is a powerless figurehead who signs proclamations and acts as a tie-breaker when City Council members can't agree.

With a City Manager form of government, there is no one elected official who takes responsibility and says, as Harry Truman did, "The buck stops here." Tucson has a City Manager, a Mayor, and six City Council members who run the government. It's no wonder that decision-making, at times, appears schizophrenic. This distributed governance allows some people to be scapegoated (like Nina Trasoff, who personally paid the political price for Rio Nuevo's perceived lack of progress), while Mayor Bob Walkup became our local Teflon Don and easily won re-election.

A leadership vacuum such as this affords the perfect opportunity for special interests to shape local government decisions. Enter the Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC)--a group of local businesses-- and the Tucson Charter Coalition (TC3), a spin-off organization, who want to save the city by making basic structural changes in governance.

Currently, these groups are lobbying the Tucson City Council to put city charter changes on the November 2010 ballot.

Some of these proposed changes I agree with. For example, changing city elections to even years would align them with the larger presidential and Congressional elections, thus increasing voter turnout and saving money. Changing the City Council's and Mayor's positions to full time and aligning their salaries with the Pima County Supervisors' compensation would allow the city to attract more qualified candidates. Since these positions are now all part-time, much power is held by unelected staff members. (Eliminating off-year elections will provide funds for the change from part-time to full-time positions.)

What I vehemently disagree with are SALC's proposals that would give the City Manager, another unelected official, more control.

Bureaucrats already hold too much power and are not directly accountable to the voters. Tucson needs a strong visionary Mayor to lead us into the future-- not a strong bureaucrat who owes his power to local businesses.

This article originally appeared in my Progressive Examiner column.

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