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But once in the hands of the private sector, the Rio Salado concept languished for years. Finally, the state legislature authorized the creation of the Rio Salado Development Commission to plan the project. In November 1987, the concept was put to a crucial test when Maricopa County voters were asked whether they would raise their property taxes to pay for building the series of parks and commercial and recreation areas.
With fears of flooding and anger over the prospect of having to clean up scores of private and public dumps strewn along the river bottom, the voters responded with a resounding "no."
The 2-1 vote against raising property taxes for Rio Salado killed the project--except in Tempe.
"We didn't see that as a vote not to build Rio Salado," explains Steve Nielsen, Tempe's Rio Salado Project development director. "We saw that as a vote not to use property taxes to pay for it."
@body:Tempe's Rio Salado has taken on a life of its own. Spurred along by Mayor Harry Mitchell and an eager development community hoping to cash in on a $1 billion bonanza over the next 20 years, construction of the project is a foregone conclusion inside the upside-down pyramid that houses Tempe's city hall.
Mitchell, whose $30,000 campaign-fund war chest is funded primarily by out-of-Tempe development interests, is the biggest booster of the project, but he isn't alone. Councilmember Carol Smith loves the idea so much she has allowed it to change history, at least in her mind. Smith, a hairdresser by profession, insists that "all the Tempe precincts voted yes" in the countywide 1987 vote. In fact, more than half of Tempe precincts voted against the proposal.
Needless to say, there is no ground swell among Tempe's elected officials to bring the question of Rio Salado back to the voters. Mitchell, who was first elected mayor in 1978, says the project has been presented informally to dozens of community groups and has been under the review of a citizens' panel for more than a decade. "Everyone loves it," he says.
Tempe's determined pursuit of Rio Salado led to the creation of a team of city planners ready to pounce on any opportunity. The golden moment came in the mid-1980s, when state officials were planning the path of the Red Mountain Parkway through south Scottsdale.
Tempe convinced the state it would be cheaper to jog the highway along the north bank of the Salt River rather than plowing through residential areas in south Scottsdale. The state liked the idea and rerouted the freeway.
Tempe didn't really care about the highway. It wanted the massive channelization project that would come with it. In order to protect the highway, the state would have to make sure the Salt River would stay in a deep channel. The Arizona Department of Transportation spent $20 million, and Tempe convinced the Maricopa County Flood Control District to kick in another $20 million for the project, which is nearing completion.
Channelizing the river will allow Tempe to reclaim 850 acres that had been subject to flooding and to transform an undefined riverbed into a manicured river course ready to be converted into a lake. The cost to Tempe was only $300,000.
While the Tempe version of Rio Salado includes parks, bike paths and wildlife habitats, it is clearly tilted toward massive commercial development.
The scale concerns Barbara Sherman, a former city councilmember who has all but announced her plan to run against Mitchell next year. "The healthy way to develop Rio Salado is on a small scale," she says. "People I have talked to believe it is much, much too large."
But city planners believe the first phase of the commercial development north of the buttes and east of Mill Avenue must be on the scale of Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix. By hitting a home run with a major development, the city could cover much of the projected outlay to maintain the lake, estimated at about $1 million annually, with tax revenues generated by the development.
But Tempe clearly wants more. The city wants to use the river to showcase its long-term goal of becoming a high-density, major urban center that would be an attractive headquarters for a multinational corporation. The Rio Salado developments, when completed two decades from now, would employ more than 7,000 workers working in a half-dozen office towers scattered along the waterfront.
Jobs are nice, but what the city is really after is money. City sales-tax revenue alone is estimated at $4.7 million annually by the time the project is done. But this is chump change compared to the huge escalation in real estate values. The city, by pumping in $30 million to build the lake, will turn now near-worthless land into a $100 million real estate oasis.
Rio Salado represents Tempe's last opportunity to hit the jackpot.
"It is really an economic lifeline for a fixed-boundary community," assistant planning director Dave Fackler says. "We cannot afford to let any part of the community sit there and rot."
@body:Picture a 300-foot-long balloon that, when blown up, stands 16 feet high. The surface of the balloon is covered with a rubberlike material that has a tough, ceramic shell. The material is so tough that a bullet will ricochet off of it, but so flexible that the balloon can be deflated in minutes. Now take the superballoon and place it between two cement piers anchored in the Salt River. What do you have? An inflatable rubber dam.