Tucson's city officials are having second thoughts about building an aquarium as part of the Rio Nuevo downtown development project. Given the shaky financial state of aquariums nationwide, second thoughts are in order.
The aquarium boom has cost more than $1 billion and resulted in many bankruptcies. Now that they've got their thinking caps on, city officials should have another look at Rio Nuevo itself.
Rio Nuevo is an ambitious example of the Downtown Disneyland theory of urban redevelopment.
As modern transportation and communications diminish the importance of central cities as commercial centers, downtown development projects concentrate on luring people back to the center to play instead of work. Even without the aquarium, Rio Nuevo will have an IMAX theater, museums, restaurants, shops, hotels, and entertainment.
Although Rio Nuevo has several attractive features, there are good reasons to treat such government mega-projects with a great deal of skepticism. First, they are based on the illusion that fancy new development is an ample substitute for the efficient provision of basic public services.
Second, like redevelopment projects nationwide, Rio Nuevo is unlikely to create new economic activity. Rather it will transfer entertainment dollars from one part of Tucson to another.
Unless Rio Nuevo attracts large crowds of out-of-town visitors, all it will do is cause Tucsonans to spend their entertainment dollars downtown rather than in other parts of the city. This will benefit downtown businesses and property owners to the detriment of businesses and property owners elsewhere.
Finally, real estate development is a highly risky activity. It has made many people millionaires, but it has also sent many to bankruptcy court. It is unwise to let city officials gamble with taxpayers' money in this way.
If government support for revitalization projects is unfair and unwise, what can be done to help downtown? It is true that cities with lots of amenities have grown faster than cities without, but these amenities are more than just a few new attractions.
Harvard professor Edward Glaeser and his colleagues, Jed Kolko and Albert Saiz, have found four key amenities that encourage urban renewal. The first is cultural, such as a rich variety of services and consumer goods and a more educated population.
Tucson already has the University of Arizona to provide the highly educated people. Rio Nuevo is intended to provide the variety of goods and services.
However, the UA campus and its surroundings are the natural point of attraction for the educated, so it will be in constant competition with Rio Nuevo. Rio Nuevo addresses this problem to some extent by stealing some of the attractions, like the Historical Society Museum, from the university area. Again, the question is why businesses and property owners in one area should suffer to benefit those in another.
The second amenity identified by Glaeser and his colleagues is physical beauty in general and weather in particular. Winter temperature and precipitation is the single most important cause of growth in population and housing prices. Tucson, with its warm, dry climate, has a lock on this amenity.
The third critical amenity is the existence of good public services - namely safe streets and good schools. With regard to education, Glaeser, Kolko, and Saiz suggest easing the tax burden on parents who send their children to private schools. This would reduce the incentive for flight away from the central city by the affluent and educated.
Of course, education reform is not the City of Tucson's responsibility. Even so, redevelopment advocates need to realize that school reform is key to urban revitalization, and add their pull to the effort to improve local schools.
The final critical amenity is transportation: Ease of getting about is important to a city's prosperity.
Here the most important principle is to face the fact that Tucson is a city built around the automobile, and nothing is likely to change that in the near, or even distant, future. Tucsonans should not put a lot of hope in mass-transit extravaganzas like light rail.
With its breathtaking mountains, idyllic weather, and a good local university, Tucson is already poised to thrive. Its public officials need only focus on the tasks they were elected to perform: keeping traffic moving, making the streets safe, keeping taxes low, and doing what they can to improve education. These tasks are not as glamorous as mega-projects such as Rio Nuevo, but they hold far more promise.
--Robert Franciosi is Director of Urban Growth and Economic Development Studies at the Goldwater Institute.