Around Arizona: Southern Exposure

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Join us for another edition of “Southern Exposure,” Arizona Horizon’s look at issues from the southern end of our state with Tucson Weekly senior writer Jim Nintzel.

Ted Simons: It's time for this month's edition of "Southern Exposure." Our look at issues from the South side of the state. Here to help us navigate what's happening in Tucson and other areas to the South is Jim Nintzel, senior writer for the "Tucson Weekly." How you been?

Jim Nintzel: Great, a little warmer here than Tucson.

Ted Simons: I'll bet. We just talked about transportation options and a new study showing people are driving less and taking mass transit more. They will really be doing that down in Tucson. You've got a new railcar coming in, huh?

Jim Nintzel: This is streetcar week in Tucson, we're very excited, a modern streetcar opening up downtown Friday for riders. It's been a long construction process, I'm sure you in Phoenix are familiar with the trials and tribulations that come from the construction of one of these things. It's been about $200 million sunk into the tracks and cars and everything set up. It's set to start Friday morning a lot of excitement.

Ted Simons: And we're looking at the cars and it has a similar look to what we have here. How many miles are we talking about here?

Jim Nintzel: It's about a four-mile run, University of Arizona Medical Center, path downtown to the west side of the interstate where we have empty land that they are hoping to get developed as a result of having a streetcar running down there.

Ted Simons: And a map here, again, from the west looks like it jogs a little north and a little east.

Jim Nintzel: Right through the heart of downtown. It's running right down Congress Street and Broadway past a lot of restaurants. It's really generated a lot of activity in the downtown area. We've got a new student housing complex going up there with the anticipation that kids will ride this back and forth to campus. A lot of new restaurants and other developments going on down there. So I think from an economic development standpoint, the money is already been very successful in generating other projects. But there is concern that the operations cost of the streetcar will eat into the city's general fund and its transit budget. We already subsidize the buses down there to a very large degree. Some concern down among some members of the City Council that this is going to be tough to find the financing for over time. But also a lot of hope that it will actually prove to be a success in transporting people back and forth.

Ted Simons: Are there spots along light rail where development can happen? Are there dead spots, open areas? Is it just a question of improving what already exists?

Jim Nintzel: Improving what already exists along most of it. On the west end past the Convention Center in downtown Tucson, it goes underneath the interstate and over a brand-new bridge, then to an area that's very undeveloped. The original what was called Rio Nuevo area. Basically it's a base of a mountain over there, if you're familiar with the downtown Tucson area. It's west of that area and very much open for development.

Ted Simons: How much of a fight was there against this project?

Jim Nintzel: There wasn't that much of a fight against this project. It was originally included as part of a larger transportation project a sales tax that mostly funded roads but set aside about $75 million for this project. Then the city was lucky enough to land a big grant during the stimulus that provided most of the rest of the funding for it, a big boon that came to the city that I think was unexpected by a lot of people. That's where most of the money came from. There have been skeptics who said this was not a very good idea.

We've had those along the light rail here even though we've seen a lot of development in certain areas, some folks still say it's not worth it. I'm sure that conversation will continue in Tucson, as well.

Jim Nintzel: For some time.

Ted Simons: Yeah. You mentioned restaurants. Of course Bianco opening a new spot right there in downtown Tucson, huh?

Jim Nintzel: He's scheduled to be opened this week right on the streetcar route. That's another thing of great excitement to those of us in Tucson. You have enjoyed his pizza here for a long time. Many communities have tried to persuade him to open a new pizza place. This is the second pizza place, he's opened other restaurants in partnership with other people around the world, but this is Tucson's, the second pizza shop and I;m certainly excited to go down there and see if I can get a slice of that this week.

Ted Simons: At the Tucson restaurant scene, how's it shaping up?

Jim Nintzel: It's really booming, especially in the downtown area. We've had some big Flagstaff eateries come down, Diablo Burger, and a place called Proper Tucson, and they're opening up a butcher shop close to the restaurant. It's all farm to table stuff, very similar to the ethos that I think Chris Bianco uses in preparing his pizza, trying to find that nearby menu around fresh produce and that kind of thing. A whole lot of other stuff going on in downtown Tucson, partially driven I think by the arrival of the streetcar.

Ted Simons: Indeed Medical marijuana researcher. Who is she, why does she no longer have a job?

Jim Nintzel: That's a very good question why she doesn't have a job anymore. She was a researcher at the University. She was dismissed by the University, who was looking into whether or not medical marijuana would help veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome. The problem is they apparently decided that they didn't want her to continue with this project, the University dismissed her recently. The University is not commenting on why this happened. She's saying there was political pressure put on the University by the legislature, some Republican lawmakers not happy with her advocacy on behalf of medical marijuana and her push to try to get state funding for this project. She's gotten some federal funds from a California nonprofit organization. I believe she has appealed to try to get her job back. I think she's planning on fighting this as much as possible. But the University does not seem to be reversing course.

Ted Simons: Some critics are saying, even those who want to see new research on medical marijuana, she was such an advocate for this there's concern the research might suffer and she was biased in some way. Does that make sense now? That is what you're hearing?

Jim Nintzel: Some people are saying that was part of what was going on here and that was why the University was concerned. Of course she has her version of events, as well. I'm not sure we'll get to the bottom of it unless there's a law that forces people to testify under oath.

Ted Simons: And you mentioned like Andy Biggs was very much front and center. He was threatening cutting funding to the University if they didn't get rid of her. We hear so many stories about this.

Jim Nintzel: A lot of legislation moving around to prevent funding for the medical marijuana funds from going to this research. And certainly it was very politically controversial. She was very critical of Kimberly Yi, a state senator sponsoring legislation to block any kind funding for this project. And of course veterans are upset with the controversy over this whole thing. It's been a very messy fight.

Ted Simons: And she is appealing.

Jim Nintzel: We'll see where that process goes. The organization that is funding some of this research have said they are going to pull the funding if she is not there.

Ted Simons: And there is an irony in the sense that PTSD has now been okay for medical marihuana by the state health director. As all this is happening, that now becomes qualifying for medical marijuana here in Arizona.

Jim Nintzel: It did. That was after a lawsuit, as well. Initially the state said they would not allow that. And eventually it went before a judge and the judge says no, you have to. They agreed to do it but there's conditions.

Ted Simons: We've only got a couple minutes left here. We've talked about this quite a bit but I think you've described this as a bus-capade, in Oracle with Sheriff Babeau, with Adam Kwasman running for congressional district 1. What's been the fallout from all this, this idea of they thought kids were being bused up there, unauthorized kids? They weren't, a crowd gathers, --- what in the world is going on down there?

Jim Nintzel: Normally we can count on the folks in Phoenix to give them a black eye nationally, but now Southern Arizona is playing its role in that part to get us on Comedy Central. It seems as though Sheriff Babeau down in Pinal County really raised a stink about the idea that some kids would be housed in a reform school in the Oracle area, some of them, the unaccompanied minors from Central America. Some showed up to do a big protest and others showed up to do a counter-protest and welcome the kids, a mariachi band showed up to play "America the Beautiful." A politician raced from Phoenix to here and raised fears, but it was a bus of YMCA campers and Adamson looked foolish. He ended up on the Colbert Report when all was said and done.

Ted Simons: How are people taking this in Tucson?

Jim Nintzel: I think there's a shelter set up for people who are not boycotting or protesting. I think there's a lot of competition for these kids who have showed up here.

Ted Simons: Jim, good to see you again.

Jim Nintzel: Always a pleasure.

Jim Nintzel:Senior Writer, Tucson Weekly;

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