Pamela Powers Hannley, a progressive voice for Arizona
Before a packed house at the Tucson Convention Center (TCC) the Tucson City Council listened to citizens and suits and eventually voted on the fate of the downtown Tucson Convention hotel.
The downtown hotel has had a tortured history since it was conceived in 2007, and in recent weeks, it has been a political hot potato with the Tucson City Council and the governor-appointed Rio Nuevo Multipurpose Facilities District Board tossing it back and forth.
Twenty-five attendees voiced their opinions to the City Council and the Rio Nuevo Board before the vote. Overwhelmingly, the citizens were against the hotel project. Complaints ranged from thoughtful and learned to rambling and unfocused, but the messages to the City Council was loud and clear:
A few people asked why the City Council wanted to spend so much money on a hotel that would primarily benefit tourists and not the citizens of Tucson. Councilwoman Regina Romero pointed out that when Governor Jan Brewer and the Arizona Legislature took over Rio Nuevo development and appointed the Rio Nuevo Board, they directed the city to focus on “revenue-generating projects” and specifically told the Rio Nuevo Board to “get ‘er done”– something they have not done. (I have written more than a dozen stories about the hotel and development downtown, and, in my opinion, the Rio Nuevo Board has been uncooperative and obstructionist.)
Local real estate agent Raj Kohli also expressed this opinion– why not build something for Tucsonans and tourists? Kohli, who has a radio show on the JOLT 1330AM, envisions a fountain plaza, hotel, shops, and an outdoor performance space. I have heard Kohli talk about his vision on the radio, and I think he’s got a point. For a city with so many artists and performers, we should have a plaza that accommodates concerts and events like Tucson Meet Yourself and the Tucson Folk Festival, and the Concert in Barrio Viejo. This would give downtown a destination that would help build community.
A small handful of people spoke in favor of the hotel. For the most part they were people who would benefit from the construction– developers, builders, construction workers.
Even after more than an hour of listening to Tucsonans rail against the hotel project, Mayor Bob Walkup, the hotel’s primary cheerleader, tried to delay the vote and/or continue negotiations to save the project.
Walkup even tried to cut off the speakers. Councilwoman Shirley Scott chimed in and said that everyone who filled out a speakers’ card should be able to speak. I got there early, and my card was “accepted” by the check-in clerk, but I was one of those who would not have been allowed to speak if Scott had not recommended the speakers continue.
Ironically, two of the more coherent speakers– a hospitality industry/hotel consultant and me– were in the group that Walkup wanted to set aside. Personally, I don’t think it was an accident that we were in the set-aside group.
The consultant had data and life-long experience in the hotel industry that he used to urge a “no” vote.
I pointed out that — although I totally support improved hotel services downtown– we are in a depressed economic climate nationwide and particularly statewide, and it’s not getting better anytime soon in Arizona. Arizona’s economy is growing slower than other states because of the over-reliance of our economy on housing construction jobs (which are now gone), and the Arizona Legislature’s failed economic policies. They are cutting jobs to balance the budget. The University of Arizona expects more job cuts– at the hands of the Legislature– in the next session. I pointed out that every time the state or the city cuts jobs they reduce the income to the city in sales tax, property tax, and income tax and increase the burden on the state and city in social services. As long as we have a Legislature who cuts jobs to balance the budget and a governor who scares tourists away with lies about violence, our state’s economy will not grow, and tourists won’t come. These economic facts + the poor airline service from Tucson International Airport make it even less likely that the convention hotel will be viable.
In the end, the City Council voted 7-0 to kill the hotel project.