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Posts Tagged ‘Karen Thorsen’

11th October
written by Jupiter Jones

Here’s another Player Report. The Player Reports are supporting stories detailing how a select few individuals or groups that know how to ‘play the game’ benefit above and beyond our standard business owners. The Players ultimately ruin the system for the rest of us. The Players thrive in our dysfunctional leaderless community. Read The Player opinion in the Inside Tucson Business.

Museum Politics: Red-headed Stepchild Tucson Museum of Art Might Leave Downtown, while Mayor’s Wife Delivers The Bacon for Tucson Children’s Museum

The way the City of Tucson has handled the Tucson Museum of Art during the “Rio Nuevo Era” is a great example of what happens when you pay undue attention to going after what you DON’T have, rather than paying enough attention to save or retain what you DO have.

The plan that was presented to the voters in 1999 included $2 million out of a projected $60 million to go to the Tucson Museum of Art – about 3.5% of the total Rio Nuevo project.

Once the Rio Nuevo funds started rolling in-the first check arrived on Halloween of 2003, according to the Rio Nuevo website-it soon became apparent that the growth in retail activity at El Con and Park Place would yield two times or more what the city had projected.   Good thing, because the Rio Nuevo master plan had already expanded the original vision of the project, and it was clearly going to take much more than $60 million to realize it.

By the time the State of Arizona had granted a 12-year extension of the TIF funding to the City of Tucson in 2006, the vision and its associated costs had already spiraled out-of-control.

Dream Big or Go Home!
With Assistant City Manager Karen Thoreson at the helm, idea after expensive idea emerged:

  1. The Sonoran Sea Aquarium lost its place in the plan, replaced by a much more expensive new arena.
  2. The “Civic Plaza” west of the Tucson Convention Center was over-designed to the tune of several tens of millions of dollars, with a proposed 1,000-space garage underneath a grand plaza, between the arena and the TCC complex.
  3. And of course, the science center had gone from a $100 million project to something like $350 million, with the concept design of a rainbow bridge that would be a quarter-mile long and 350 feet tall.

Whatever extra money was expected to come in from the extension of Rio Nuevo was surely going to be eaten up by these new projects.

The allocation to the Tucson Museum of Art both before and after the TIF extension was still $2 million.  With projections of $600 million or more from the extension, that $2 million was now just 0.33% of the TIF, compared to 3.5% of the original pool.

The Presidio Terrace Factor

New, modern, hip housing is a necessary component of a revitalized downtown; without an active population to live and thrive the entire project would be a tough sell.  By this time, Thoreson had embarked on an ambitious plan to build new housing in downtown, but the goal of 1,200 new units by 2006 that she talked the council into projecting was clearly beyond the city’s grasp. By about 1,000 units, as it turned out.

One of the sites that was identified for housing development was Lot 7, adjacent to the Tucson Water building and across Main Avenue from the Tucson Museum of Art.  Definitely a no-brainer as an attractive site for a mid-rise, upscale residential development.

This project became known as “Presidio Terrace” and it could be the topic of its own post, but it’s important here because the parking lot at the Presidio Terrace site was leased to the museum for its employees and visitors.  In order to build Presidio Terrace, the city and the developer would have to satisfy the museum’s need for parking.  During the planning for PT, it was decided that the promised $2 million Rio Nuevo contribution to TMA would be for a public parking garage underneath the housing development, with some number of spaces allocated for the museum’s use.

TMA was always adamant about maintaining parking there, but you have to wonder why that $2 million replacement of parking was all TMA would ever get out of Rio Nuevo.

Meanwhile, Other Museums Felt the Rio Nuevo Love

Why were TMA’s own ambitious plans for expansion met with a deaf ear, when the Arizona Historical Society’s new museum, the UA’s new museums, and the Tucson Children’s Museum’s new building, all got huge allocations in the revised, post-TIF extension Rio Nuevo plan?

The revised Rio Nuevo plan that unfolded in the year after the TIF extension now called for the proposed new museums, including the science center, to be located around a new “Cultural Plaza” on the west side of the Santa Cruz, north of the Convento reconstruction.

  • Joining the Arizona State Museum, Arizona History Museum, and UA Science Center would be a new home for the Tucson Children’s Museum.
  • In a May 22, 2007 memo to the City Council. city manager Mike Hein outlined a plan for allocating the half-billion or so in projected Rio Nuevo funds, and, in addition to $130 million for the science center and Arizona State Museum, it had $60 million for “Other Museums”, which included $10 million for a new Tucson Children’s Museum building.

Co-locating the Children’s Museum on a museum campus certainly has the potential to create synergies, particularly with the science center.  However, the original allocation of funds for the Children’s Museum from Rio Nuevo was intended to renovate the museum in its Carnegie Library location, not to relocate it out of downtown to a new building.

How did the Children’s Museum get added to the plan, and get promised a hefty allocation of TIF money?  Could Mayor Walkup’s wife Beth’s long-time involvement with the TCM have played a role?

Tucson Museum of Art – Rio Nuevo’s Red Headed Step-Child

City officials and their emissaries have reportedly told museum staff that:

  • There is another available parcel of land near the Cultural Plaza that could be held for the TMA, but TMA would have to pay all the costs of a new building there itself.
  • If the museum leaves for a better arrangement in Marana, Oro Valley, or the Foothills, “we’ll just get someone else in there” (in the TMA’s existing building). (Who, exactly? The fledgling Museum of Contemporary Art?)

Council Member Nina Trasoff, whose Ward 6 does not include the museum and Historic Block, but whose council subcommittee oversees arts, culture, and history in addition to Rio Nuevo and downtown, has done little to combat the perception that she’s not a fan of the museum, or of the western art that it exhibits (along with many other genres).   Cowboy art is not everyone’s bag, but in a place like Tucson, it obviously has to be part of the mix.

Pima County obviously doesn’t care much for the museum or its growth, or at least for its vision of expanding TMA into an iconic downtown landmark owned by the county.  When the museum revived a decades-old vision of using portions of the Old Pima County Courthouse for additional exhibit space, Chuck and the Chuckettes underwhelmed TMA board and staff with their response.

The City pays the museum something like $80,000 a year to maintain the historic properties on the museum campus, the “Historic Block”.  This likely does not cover the costs of maintaining the Casa Cordova, the Romero House, the J. Knox Corbett House, and the rest.  This is hardly a grand gesture of support.

Sometime in 2007, it apparently dawned on the Tucson Museum of Art that it really wasn’t part of anyone’s plan for downtown.  The Presidio Terrace deal had fallen apart;  the expansion to the courthouse wasn’t going to happen; and Rio Nuevo had increased its funding for all of the other museums, while allocating nothing for TMA. Without feeling the love, TMA went looking for greener pastures.

So when developer Mike Hansen came a-courtin’, TMA listened.  Hansen dangled the prospect of several acres of prime Foothills real estate near La Encantada for a new TMA campus.  Later, there were overtures, or rumors of overtures, from Oro Valley and Marana.

The Tucson Museum of Art is one project that won’t lose much if Rio Nuevo falls apart-it wasn’t getting much anyway.  Still, with the air let out of the Rio Nuevo bubble, it’s hard to imagine that those overtures from Tucson’s neighbors to the north are going to do anything but gain strength and momentum, bad economy or not.

‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’

If Rio Nuevo’s bubble does, in fact, collapse, there won’t be new museums on the west side of the downtown area.  But you can’t really lose what you never had.  If Tucson Museum of Art leaves downtown of its own accord, because another Pima County town wanted it more than Tucson wanted it, downtown WOULD lose something that it already had.

Does it even need to be said what a pitiful shame that would be? Is Tucson prepared to lose the TMA, just like it is losing Triple A baseball, spring training, Rio Nuevo, and god forbid, the Gem Shows?  At some point, you have to stop the bleeding and decide what is important to protect.

Maybe the Tucson Museum of Art just needs some better-connected board members – that might be one way to get things going.

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