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3rd March
written by Jupiter Jones

In a mad rush to stave off elimination of the Rio Nuevo pot of money, the Tucson City Council has announced a redirection of the priorities for spending the $80 million they cashed in just before the New Year from bonds they sold, desperately, at a premium. 

Now, rather than funding for more design of museums and for construction of the Convento (known by some as the mud hut), the city will spend what might be the last Rio Nuevo money it ever sees on an arena and convention hotel. 

Do it Right or Don’t Do It at All!

To fans of the much-needed hotel, this is a very late, only-barely-better, better-late-than-never situation.  It would be more persuasive if it weren’t such an obviously desperate maneuver to save the TIF and the Gem Shows at the same time. 

I have yet to meet a fan of the arena as the city has proposed it. 

From casual conversations with real people to reading the on-line comments and blogs, there seem to be two schools of thought on the arena that the city seems to want to build so desperately:  either build it bigger or don’t build it at all.

It’s puzzling that the city would spend $130 million on a new arena that only gives Tucson 2,000 more seats than the crappy “Madhouse on Main”, as the Icecats coach calls the Tucson Arena.  I know, I know;  it’s not just the number of seats that makes the crappy arena uncompetitive.  It’s the ceiling height, the lack of amenities, the lack of decent locker rooms and green rooms, the lack of luxury boxes for Rich Singer to feel important in, and the smell.  

Nonetheless, with a growing city (albeit economically under-performing its population), wouldn’t the 12,000-seat arena be obsolete the day it opens? 

Apparently the UA has made it clear that it is not moving the basketball Wildcats out of McKale Center, but even so, there are opportunities for national-level sporting events that would surely be out of reach of an arena so small.  There are AAU events, NCAA events, Olympic qualifying events. 

Sizing to the Sweet Spot

The city’s argument against a bigger arena is that it can’t afford the cost of construction.  But if the operating revenue of a bigger arena justified the cost, the cost wouldn’t matter, would it? If you were in the private sector, and were trying to decide how big of a plant to build, would you limit yourself to building a smaller factory that could only produce enough output to serve a limited area if you could cost-effectively produce enough to serve a much larger market and make larger profits by building a bigger factory?  Of course not.  You would find the sweet spot. 

There may be multiple equilibrium points here.  It’s conceivable that 12,000 seats is more cost-effective than 15,000 seats.  City officials seem to be making that argument, and they may be right.  The new revenue brought in by a 15,000-seat building may not be enough to justify the additional cost of the 3,000 seats. 

But, perhaps a 17,000-seat arena opens up a whole new set of revenue opportunities not available at 15,000 seats, and an arena of that size, while costing significantly more than $130 million, would pay the city back more handsomely than the Little 12,000-seat Arena That Couldn’t.   Perhaps the additional revenue would be enough to justify the additional cost.  Perhaps not.  I don’t know.  You probably don’t know.  The point is, the city had better know what its options are, and it had better be able to explain why it has selected the option that it has.


Explain it to Us-Who Knows, We May Even Support It!

This would be called Leadership.  Understanding the full implications of the various policy options open to you, evaluating the best deal for the current and future needs of the community, and then communicating to the citizens/taxpayers why the optimal option was selected over other alternatives. 


Let’s say you’re the mayor of such a city that was considering building an arena.  Go on TV.  Write guest opinions in the newspaper.  Hold a town hall meeting and televise it.  Tell John C. Scott and his listeners about it.  But don’t just do the cheerleading bit.  Explain the logic and the thought process and what the implications of the alternative scenarios were and why you reached the conclusion that this alternative was best for us.


What’s the Real Reason We’re Doing This?

Also, while you are at it, tell us what we are getting out of the arena you are building for us.  Minor-league hockey?  Arena football?  More and better concerts?  Monster truck rallies?  NCAA gymnastics championships?  Sweet 16 basketball?  Preventing the tribes from building an arena outside the city limits?  Or perhaps, just more exhibit space for the expanded convention center you also seem hell-bent on building.  Is the arena necessary in order to make the hotel work?  (If that’s the case, then you’d better extend your presentation to tell us how and why the 525-room hotel is necessary and whether it is truly feasible.)  Just tell us, we’re adults.


If the threat of losing the Gem Show will truly be abated by building the hotel, then tell us that.  I just want to know.   Use a flow chart if you have to.  And don’t have Greg Shelko, Rich Singer, or Glenn Lyons explain it.  You do it.  You’re the mayor.


Whatever you do, don’t spend $130 million of our money just to prove a point.  Or just to save a bunch of diverted state tax money you no longer seem entitled to spend based on your track record to this point.

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