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Is the Solar Oasis a Mirage?

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CARL HODGES wouldn't like to see anything gummed up, either. For three years, he's clung to his Solar Oasis dream despite numerous setbacks. This scientist is the mastermind behind Biosphere Two, that famed world-in- a-bubble near Ajo. He's also a shrewd and savvy salesman.

In the past three years, he sold dozens of politicians and two governors when they visited the Environmental Research Lab in Tucson, where, as director, he was able to erect a mini- solar oasis to give a hint of what he wants at the Civic Plaza. It looks a little like a botanical version of Golf N' Stuff, but leaves a visitor with a wonderful sense of hope for future generations stuck with toughing it out in a polluted world. When he gives his mini-oasis tour, he acts like a rumpled Mr. Wizard, patiently answering dumb questions over and over. He explains the strain of rice that thrives on polluted air; the high-protein tilapia fish that love eating trash and swimming in salty water; the tall solar-powered towers that cool the hot desert air by swooshing it through pads moistened with "harvested" rainwater. And he explains how such turrets will cool the plaza by at least twenty degrees in the summer or could cool an average house for just $5 a month.

He thinks Phoenix, with its "terrible environmental problems," is ripe for these displays of sensible desert living. "We gotta wake up," he says. "It's time to start paying attention to our future." Hodges is good at getting people fired up about ecology, but he's learned the hard way that even fired-up people don't always hand over the cash. Hodges first pitched the Solar Oasis to the City of Tucson in 1986. But the city where he lives and works turned him down, saying it didn't have the money.

So he tooled on up to the next logical place, Phoenix. He says he was happy to learn that "Bruce and Terry had the available funds." Although he'd have a rude awakening about those promises, he so believes in the validity of the project that he has adopted a remarkably patient attitude.

It's no wonder that former Governor Bruce Babbitt and Mayor Terry Goddard offered their support. The Civic Plaza is Phoenix's albatross. Locals and conventioneers stay away from the barren facility, even though the city plunked over $65 million into plaza renovation in 1985, and pays about $20 million per year to keep it maintained. (And these days, even city officials are staying away, judging from how they preferred to let the recent Fiestaval food fling clog seven blocks of a major thoroughfare instead of putting it at the logical Civic Plaza.)

Babbitt, known as an environmentally conscious governor, jumped at the chance to bring an oasis to one of the nation's hottest summer cities and perhaps give his presidential bid yet another environmental gold star. So he committed $3 million from a little-known cache called the state Energy Restitution Fund. That money, which now totals nearly $40 million, was paid by court order to the citizens of Arizona by the oil companies, which had been caught overcharging us back in the 1970s. The money can only be spent on energy-related projects.

Back in 1986, no one thought it would be difficult to obtain those oil-rip-off funds from the statehouse. And no one figured the city would have a problem getting another $6 million worth of Civic Plaza bond money. But they figured wrong.

The oasis suffered its first setback when Evan Mecham took office. The new governor at first refused to let Hodges have a penny of the money Babbitt had promised. Then, after taking The Tour at Hodges' lab, he released $1.5 million, only half of the Babbitt commitment.

With the Mecham money, Hodges built a mini-solar oasis in the summer of 1987 in the plaza near Symphony Hall. The so-called "Summer Invitational" drew over 100,000 people in two months, says Hodges. The visitors included his old buddy, actor Marlon Brando. He claims the public's response was so positive that officials felt pressured to get a permanent Solar Oasis started quickly. So supporters started bragging that groundbreaking could commence as early as the summer of 1988. But there were some citizens who left the Summer Invitational with apprehensions. Cluttering up the city's pristine Civic Plaza with such frou-frou was an abomination, some groused. One complainer, Carefree architect Fred Osmon, felt compelled to write Hodges a letter after visiting the mini-oasis. "The placement in front of Symphony Hall was strange," he wrote. "Why impede the dignity of the hall? This is also true of the proposed Plaza redesign. It is not appropriate for a civic center. If you want people and movement, do it in a commercial area.

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Terry Greene