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UP THE CHUTE

Pima County Prime Minister Chuck Huckelberry is a step closer to fulfilling a long-held dream to bulldoze the Rillito Race Track, birthplace of American quarter horse racing. The 88-acre facility on North First Avenue at the Rillito River is a coveted piece of property that Huckelberry would like to 1) use for soccer fields, 2) sell, or 3) convert to a spring training spot specifically for the Los Angeles Dodgers (but only if Huck has the good sense to listen to some trusted advisors). The Dodgers have scouted Cactus League sites and, we think, could still be lured from Florida. Hey, they left Brooklyn.

Huckelberry, with the blessing of his Board of Supervisors, has allowed the steady deterioration of the track that hosts minor, low-stakes but fun county-fair horse racing each winter. Between $1 million and $1.5 million will be needed to make necessary safety improvements to the grandstand and other structures at the track.

The county's plan, since allowing the Pima County Horsemen's Association to make bare minimum upgrades to revive racing in the late 1980s, has been to let the place rot. Sure, the county put in soccer fields and other mixed-use items that have lured such events as the UA Spring Fling. Huckelberry and Co. want to put horse racing at the county fairgrounds, on South Houghton Road.

The horsemen should have seen this coming. Huckelberry--and his rubber-stamp bond committee and rubber-stamp Board of Supervisors--could have easily adjusted the $732 million bond package approved by voters in May 2004 to include cash for Rillito. Of that bond total, $96 million was approved for parks and recreation facilities, along with $46 million for development of river parks and flood control. A couple of million bucks could have been directed toward Rillito. Instead, the county can tap into $5 million in park bonds to bulldoze the track to accommodate new soccer fields.

The horsemen have enlisted Big Ed Moore to ride to the rescue. El Ed rode the populist wave of the Rillito Race Track initiative in 1984--along with the Rillito-Pantano Parkway vote--to a seat on the Board of Supervisors he held until 1997. That initiative, which passed easily, stated that the track must be used for horse racing for 25 years--through 2010. The county took no steps to renew that pledge.

Moore famously locked himself inside the race track during one of the pitched battles to preserve it prior to the 1984 vote. He appeared on television barricaded at the track. But Moore, when it came to parks and recreation, was also famously pragmatic. He constantly pushed for parks, "not just for bunnies" but for kids to play ball.

The racing since revival has been, well, quaint. And this much is clear: While it provides an atavistic entertainment alternative for a few weeks each winter, it certainly is not an economic boon.

Soccer moms aren't satisfied with sharing Rillito and want the whole thing, a problematic shift given that part of the track has official historic status.


MONKEY BAR

We'll drink to the latest proposal for Rio Nuevo: relocating Nimbus Brewing Co. to new digs downtown. Local brewers have brought success to a bunch of other downtowns, some famously, like John Hickenlooper's Wynkoop Brewing Co. It was a catalyst to Denver's busting LoDo (lower downtown). Hickenlooper has gone on to become mayor of Denver.

We'd vote for the Nimbus monkey for mayor. But first, the downtown brewery plan: It's too grandiose. It needs to start realistic with what's feasible. That means losing the 61 high-rise condos aimed at "the 20-something lifestyle." Right. And then they can grow up and buy an AARP-lifestyle, half-million-dollar condo that promoters Bob McMahon and Don Martin plan for the green space at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library.


ELEVATION ELECTION

Hey, voters! The transportation ballot-box excitement might not end with the half-cent sales-tax election next May. Tucson Transportation Director Jim Glock tells us that he's recommending that the City Council follow the provisions of the City Charter's Neighborhood Protection Amendment to allow voters to approve a plan to stretch Murphy's Overpass on Kino Boulevard across 22nd Street, eliminating one of the southside's most troublesome bottlenecks. Murphy's Overpass now carries traffic over the Barraza-Aviation Parkway and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

The county agreed to pony up $10 million for the project, as part of an accord struck to resolve lingering complaints about the county reneging on agreements to help the city as part of the '97 bond election. (The bridge takes the place of a promised widening of 22nd Street near Interstate 10, which is now included in the RTA plan our civic leaders are asking us to support in May 2006.)

We suspect the extension of Murphy's Overpass, which would bring some relief to the rush-hour snarl that results from having the Kino and Cherry Avenue intersections so close together, is priced a little low, giving the skyrocketing costs of concrete and steel. The city of Tucson is obligated to pick up any costs above the county's $10 million contribution.

The Neighborhood Protection Amendment, passed by voters back in the mid-'80s to bollocks-up any plans for a crosstown freeway, requires a public vote for any grade-separated interchange, among other proposals.

Glock says the proposal could go before voters in November 2006.


HEINS OFF

In the tug-of-war for open government, City Manager Mike Hein has lost a significant, more-than-symbolic battle. Hein welcomed visitors--business leaders, taxpayers and even reporters--to his office not long after he was selected in February to replace super-secret James "Kommander" Keene. Hein opened the doors of his office to the shock and dismay of many longtime bureaucrats. He even got City Hall's security gestapo to back off.

But the bureaucrats and the City Council members who report to the bureaucrats struck back, and the gestapo is back in full force.

On July 8, the day the bureaucrats and city's lawyers bamboozled the City Council to meet in secret session to be further bamboozled to give away $3.5 million in taxes to attract Boost-bottler Novartis, the gestapo was busy detaining earnest people with true business at City Hall.

Hein pledged that the sign-in sheet and ID check were a thing of the past. Not so. We got stopped, even though we had arranged to pick up a Rio Nuevo plan from the manager's office.

That's nothing. A well-dressed professional man with several rolled-up documents had an appointment upstairs. He was forced to show ID, to sign in, and was then told to sit while the guard fumbled to get confirmation that there was indeed an appointment.

Still, that's nothing. Guards, on another day, also detained one of Hein's sweet kids who simply wanted to see Dad at the office.

Verboten!


ADIOS, AUGIE

Condolences to family, friends, baseball teammates and countless Tucson and Mexican baseball players and other athletes inspired by Augie Acuña, who died July 21. Acuña was a great member of the old-school Pima County Parks and Recreation Department. He was the recreation boss for 34 years and was a longtime sports official, refereeing countless high school, city league and parks games with fairness and kindness to kids. He also served as an early member of the Pima County Sports Authority and was a member of the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame. He was appropriately honored with a park in his name: Augie Acuña-Los Niños Park at 5432 S. Bryant Ave.

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