River watch: Rio!

Envision a desert park to rival Central Park in south Phoenix, mega corporations building headquarters along the Mesa waterfront, and high-rise residential buildings dotting the riverbanks in Avondale.

That’s what citizens and others in eight cities and tribes along the Salt River are starting to dream about as plans to transform the river for future generations are churning forward.

Called Rio Reimagined, the dream was jump started last year when U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, asked Arizona State University President Michael Crow to take the lead to get the Valley collectively refocused on its river fronts.

In a historic first step, all the necessary parties met recently to sign a statement of intent to make it happen. Federal agencies, eight cities and tribes, Salt River Project, and others will now collaborate as a unit to bring economic development, ecosystem restoration, and “multi-generational” recreation to a 45-mile stretch along the river that cuts through the Salt River Maricopa and Gila River indian communities, Mesa, Phoenix, Tempe, Goodyear, Avondale and Buckeye.  

“The Rio Reimagined project has the potential to transform the Salt and Gila river bottoms and revitalize an untapped Valley treasure,” McCain, said in a written statement this week. “This forward-thinking initiative could offer commercial and recreational attractions, and also serve as a critical water resource and conservation area for all Valley communities.”

Communities will come up with a vision for each of their riverfronts while a jurisdictional group will make decisions collectively on how to tether them together, said Melissa McCann, director of University City Exchange at ASU that is coordinating the effort until the new group is formed.

Groups valleywide are lined up to help.  

“We’re excited to be part of the kitchen cabinet that is making this a reality,” said Cheryl Lombard, CEO and President of Valley Partnership, which  represents the real estate industry that will advocate for responsible development as the project moves ahead.

Arizona Forward held its first statewide Sustainability Summit this month to champion the effort and voiced its commitment.

“Our members stand ready to support Rio Reimagined throughout the years,” said Lori Singleton, CEO and president of the group that brings business and civic leaders together to help push forward environmental sustainability and economic vitality projects.

It could take decades to build out the vision. But the Valley is not starting from scratch. Several cities and tribes along the river have restoration projects and developments including Tempe Town Lake and Mesa Riverview.  

Funding typically comes from a mix of sources including private support for river projects. Federal help is available through the federal Urban Waters program to assist in revitalizing waterways to make way for economic development and recreation.

Another funding vehicle, Opportunity Zones and Opportunity Funds, was passed by congress last year to spur economic growth in low-income U.S. Census tracts. Arizona is one of the first states to have a list of zones approved. Rio Salado is on the list. This new designation allows people and businesses to invest in these zones and receive reductions on capital gains taxes.

Former Congressman Ed Pastor, who spent decades working to get county, federal and other resources to build and restore amenities along the river, spoke at the signing about his days at ASU 50 years ago when the river was becoming a dumping ground.

“I, along with you, am ready to start working the next 50 years plus to ensure that future generations get to see our river brought back to life, our Rio Salado,” Pastor said.  

Victoria Harker

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