A MUSEUM AT THE MERCADO?AILING SYMINGTON PROJECT MAY GET BOOST FROM CITY BOND MONEY

What's it gonna be today? A stabbing, maybe?
Or a bloody spat between crackheads and hookers in nearby University Park?
These are the sorts of things Cindy Myers thinks about often when she arrives at the Phoenix Museum of History at 1001 West Van Buren.

And the executive director of the museum will be the first to tell you she and the museum's board of directors are sick and tired of having to think about how the sinister neighborhood scares away visitors.

The museum (formerly called the Arizona Museum) was supposed to move to an architecturally prestigious new building in Heritage Square, thanks to city bond money. Now, however, that move has been delayed by financial problems. But Myers and the directors are so exasperated by their old neighborhood that they are looking into using the bond money to move the museum to the teetering-on-the-brink-of-foreclosure Mercado.

Now that's an idea born of desperation. And it's produced a groan from some members of the architectural community.

The Mercado, developed by Governor Fife Symington and Hispanic business group Chicanos por La Causa, has been a financial disaster since it opened its doors in late 1989. Now, because the developers have been unable to make payments on a $10 million loan, the retail-office complex at Fifth Street and Van Buren is slated for the auction block on January 17.

Of course, if the museum did move into the Mercado, it would pump money into the ailing project. But Chris Hamel, the member of the museum's board of directors who came up with the idea in the first place, says bailing out a Republican governor was the last thing on his mind.

Hamel is a Democrat who helped run Bruce Babbitt's failed presidential campaign and was an active campaigner for Symington's opponent, Terry Goddard. "Believe me," says Hamel, "I'm the least likely person to help Governor Fife Symington."

Curiously, the story of who first suggested this possible windfall of public funds for the Mercado has changed. Both Hamel and Myers say the Mercado museum idea was Hamel's. But in an August 15 letter to Mayor Paul Johnson, Myers wrote: "Representatives of the owners of the Mercado property have approached the museum with the suggestion that one or more of the buildings at the Mercado be purchased by the city for use as the home [of the museum]." Myers says she didn't have her facts straight when she wrote the letter to Johnson.

The directors still aren't sure if it's legal--or feasible--for them to move into the Mercado. But if they do, the new digs may seem a bit, well, plastic.

The pink and blue Mercado is supposed to look like a festive Mexican village, but some people say it looks more like a gaudy stage set of a Mexican ghost town.

By comparison, the museum has been housed for 64 years in an elegant adobe building. When the Daughters of the American Revolution came up with the idea for the museum, the area surrounding the museum was tres chic.

Today, only a handful of visitors is brave enough to stop by and view the museum's quirky collections of Salt River Valley memorabilia.

Since the early Eighties, the museum's directors have been lobbying to move the museum to a more welcoming neighborhood. In 1988, they scored a remarkable coup when the museum got $3.5 million in municipal bond money for a new building on the north end of a proposed Heritage Science Park in the area of Fifth Street and Monroe. The idea was that the history museum, along with a proposed science museum, would bring excitement and visitors to the area.

The museum directors agreed to donate the old adobe at Tenth Avenue and Van Buren to the city parks department, which promised to preserve it. The new museum building at Heritage Science Park was to be designed by a noted South American architect Emilio Ambasz. But almost immediately, the project began hitting snags. First, the city pleaded poverty and announced that the Big Move couldn't take place until the mid-Nineties. And then the architectural drawings for the new museum by Ambasz, while decidedly beautiful, came in over budget because no one could figure out how to economically move an old underground telephone cable. Ambasz is currently retooling his plans to see if he can drive down the cost, according to city and museum officials.

All of this is not to say that the directors don't like the Ambasz design. They love it. But Myers and others shudder to think that they might not be able to move into the Ambasz building until 1997. That's six more years of hookers and druggies.

"We'd really like to be in our building in Heritage Science Park," says Myers. "That's been our dream and our goal. But if we can get a similar sized facility and get out of here years earlier, we're not going to turn our backs on that possibility."

In the meantime, some architects are shocked that the museum is thinking about forsaking a future home designed by a world-class architect for what they consider to be the less-than-inspiring Mercado.

"It is a very serious issue," says John Meunier, dean of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design at Arizona State University and a member of the Central City Board of Architectural Review.

Meunier points out that Heritage Science Park, as originally planned, would be an architectural jewel. He says he's dismayed that the history museum directors, and the city itself, would consider using bond money intended for architectural masterpieces to move into the Mercado.

Myers says architecture isn't her concern right now. "My taste in architecture is not relevant to this discussion," she says. "We're faced with a serious problem. We might not be able to stay open."

During a recent week, she says, the museum had only nine visitors. "And four of them were casing us out for possible theft."

The directors still aren't sure if it's legal for them to move into the Mercado.

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