In 2017, through Propositions 202 and 203 the voters approved a funding source for zoo operations, maintenance and capital improvements. Over the course of the following year, at least 8 public meetings were held to present concepts related to the Reid Park Zoo Master Plan that was to be funded by those Propositions. Ultimately, in October, 2018, then Council Member Romero made a motion to approve the Plan that had evolved over the course of the year following the funding vote, through those public meetings. This is one of numerous similar renderings that had been presented throughout that year, and at each of the multiple Mayor and Council meetings leading up to that final unanimous vote:
The Asia expansion area is to the left in the image, immediately beneath the large retention pond that will remain unchanged throughout and after construction. The text of the Master Plan clearly identifies the current Barnum Hill and south retention pond as being incorporated in the Asia expansion area. All of this material was presented multiple times publicly, and to the Mayor and City Council at publicly noticed meetings prior to the final vote to approve the project.
Since that time, the Reid Park Zoological Society (RPZS) has acted in good faith to manage the zoo operations, and bring under contract design and contracting firms to initiate the Mayor and Council approved plans for the expansion. The Society has raised over $3M in support of the Phase 1 projects approved by the governing body. In addition, over the subsequent 3 fiscal years, the Mayor and City Council has approved each capital budget presented by RPZS to continue advancing the project, consistent with the plans approved in 2018 per then CM Romero’s motion.
In the past several weeks, concerns have been raised by groups who now object to the incorporation of the south retention pond and Barnum Hill into the expansion area. Their concerns have not gone ignored. I have met with city staff, including the city manager, parks director and other representatives of the city manager’s office. In addition, Council Member Fimbres participated in our most recent meeting during which at my request staff shared the progress we’re making in crafting a new, public space that will include many of the features people have indicated a connection to in the Barnum area. The work I’ve done in support of finding a win-win path forward has not been at the ‘privilege’ of the Mayor. I’ve invested this time because I have been mindful of both the public process this governing body has gone through to get to this point, as well as the public concerns raised regarding the expansion area. This rendering is a conceptual description of the progress made to date. The plan has been to bring this to Mayor and City Council prior to taking it out for wide public input and comment.
As conceptualized, the plan will incorporate multiple water features, a net increase in trees vs what is currently in the Barnum area, increased turf area through the elimination of asphalt, walking paths, water conservation elements and educational opportunities which will be conducted through cooperation with zoo docents. I appreciate the hard work city staff and Zoological Society members have invested in getting us this far, attempting to find a solid middle ground between honoring the public process, including public unanimous votes by the Mayor and City Council over the past 3 years, and the current concerns being raised by well-meaning members of the public. Finding that balance is the hallmark of good public policy.
On Wednesday, I was surprised to learn through questions by the media that the Mayor indicated an interest in ‘pausing’ the current project. While there are millions of dollars already spent in support of the work that will be wasted if we change course, what is of larger concern to me is the message that sends to anybody who in the future may sign contracts with, and rely on the good faith of the Mayor and Tucson City Council. If we reserve the right to change our minds years down the road, on what basis does anybody sign on the dotted line with us? Further, the RPZS has trusted this Mayor and City Council and has solicited donations in support of the project we have repeatedly approved over the past 3 years. Changing course now will fundamentally compromise the ability of not only RPZS, but any non-profit who becomes contractually bound with the City of Tucson to go into the private funding market and secure donations.
During the early years of Rio Nuevo, the City developed a history of starting projects, stopping, and changing direction, with little but plans on a shelf to show for it. Those days are far behind us. We’ve made too much progress building a solid reputation as a partner who can be relied upon and trusted to revert to those wasteful business tactics.
Through my efforts, supported by staff and the RPZS, we have made excellent progress in framing this forward-looking addition to Reid Park. Unless there are others who have solutions superior to this direction - solutions that honor the legislative and contractual history this governing body has approved, which followed significant public outreach for a year following the vote to approve a funding source - then to demonstrate the City of Tucson is a trusted contractual partner, we must move ahead in this direction. Pausing a project that has been subject to years of discussion, Mayor and Council unanimous support and significant private funding, will cause damage to the reputation the City has worked diligently to earn over the past decade.