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Is the Solar Oasis a Mirage?

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"Does the Plaza need `street furniture' and `fun things'?"
Hodges thanked Osmon for his thoughts, but kept adding more and more "fun things" to the plans, items that eventually doubled the cost of the project. "The scope of the project keeps changing because Carl Hodges keeps finding new and exciting things to do," says David Schupbach, who will coordinate the construction of the oasis for the Civic Plaza.

What's more, because Hodges had a hand in designing the Land Pavilion at EPCOT Center in Florida, he conjured up a $1.5 million "Mini-Theatre of the Mind," a tunnel-like pavilion called "Desert Imagical," with special Disney-like effects and games that would teach ecology.

Then he dreamed up an eleven-story, $4.5 million Tower of Many Suns that would naturally cool much of the Solar Oasis by at least 20 degrees from the outside's scorching temperature. There would also be several 45-foot-high towers for cooling, he said, but this giant tower would be like a museum. People could climb inside and learn about solar energy and natural cooling and organic gardening. Problem is, to this day, no one knows for sure what the tower will look like because the Solar Oasis's Tucson architects, NBBJ Group/Gresham Larson, won't work on the design until there's money in the bank to pay them.

WHEN THE OASIS didn't show up on the Plaza deck in the summer of 1988, some started wondering if this were just another pipe dream from a city council notorious for bungling projects.

Finally, in the fall of 1988, Terry Goddard appointed seven civic leaders to the Solar Oasis Advisory Committee. Some wonder why City Hall waited so long. "I don't have any idea," says Chuck Case, who heads the committee. "Time slips by before you get to doing things.

"This required a lot of spade work, which was maybe not projected from the beginning and not fully appreciated." The group includes Valley honchos Dino DeConcini (brother to the senator), Richard Mallery (lawyer and major backer of the downtown Herberger Theater), planner Peter Drake, Richard Goldsmith (a high-powered Phoenix attorney), arts advocate Betsy Stodola, and Henry Sargent of Pinnacle West, the parent company of Arizona Public Service. Alfredo Gutierrez is advising the advisory committee on how to maneuver the legislature to get state funds. (He's working for free, but his services may well benefit one of his clients, the Hispanic group Chicanos por la Causa, which is hoping to build a downtown hotel that might draw more visitors if the oasis were in place.)

The first thing the committee did was tone down the oasis's design a bit, hoping that critics like the architect Osmon wouldn't be quite as put off. Then, with Alfredo in the lead, they settled down for some serious politicking. Minutes of a March 22 committee meeting say that a "low- profile" effort to build "a strong constituency among the legislature, the city and the Civic Plaza [board]" was discussed.

Everyone soon discovered the slam- dunk $6 million in Civic Plaza bond money wasn't as easy to get as they expected. By law, that money must first be released by the Civic Plaza Building Corporation Board. Board chairman Tracy Thomas has reportedly told several the oasis would go in "over my dead body." Thomas did not return New Times' phone calls.

Newton Rosenzweig, another member of the board, says he thinks he'll probably vote against the project because he doesn't believe it will lure out-of-town visitors to the plaza. "Tracy's not for it," admits DeConcini, but he hastens to add that "the majority of the board appears to favor the Solar Oasis." If it nixes the $6 million, DeConcini says, "then we'll have to fund it from a different source."

The problem now existing at the statehouse is just as tricky. Officials want the state to contribute $3.8 million from the oil-payback fund, which is now carefully guarded by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee--a defensive move the legislature installed during Mecham's reign because it feared how he would use the lucrative fund. If the budget committee gives its okay, then Governor Rose Mofford has to agree. She has indicated she's ready to give the oasis $1.8 million, with the other $2 million released only if supporters can raise $2 million in matching private funds. In the meantime, some members of the grassroots Arizona Solar Energy Association say that the Solar Oasis may be getting too much of the oil funds. So they are lobbying the legislature to lend oil-payback money--not give an outright gift. But if the Solar Oasis has to borrow, officials say they may have to charge admission to the Imagical pavilion to pay off the loan.

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Terry Greene