More than 100 of Arizona's most influential business and political leaders from both sides of the aisle gathered in a theater overlooking Tempe Town Lake Friday to unanimously support one of the most ambitious ideas in recent Arizona history:
A development that would stretch 45 miles across metropolitan Phoenix — traversing six cities and two Native American reservations — that would bring life back to the Salt River bed that has lain dry and mostly unused for more than 100 years.
Friday's meeting was a formality in many ways. It was a commitment by Valley mayors, county leaders and representatives from a half-dozen federal agencies to work as one toward a grand vision of a redeveloped Rio Salado, dubbed the "Rio Reimagined."
But there was a sense in the room that the commitment was more than procedural — it also was the beginning of a project with the potential to substantively alter the face and culture of the region.
"This is an amazing morning. Remember this, because this is a game-changer today," Cindy McCain told attendees.
McCain's husband, U.S. Senator John McCain, was the catalyst for Friday's commitment. Although local and national leaders have toyed with the idea of bringing development and recreation to the dry Rio Salado riverbed for more than 50 years, it was McCain's leadership in the past year that revived the idea.
In a statement read by his wife, McCain said Friday's meeting was the first step in creating an organization that will see the development project through to completion.
"All of Arizona benefits when we enhance our communities. When one city prospers, all cities prosper. The Rio Salado is our chance to provide connectivity to the river, parks, trails and one another."
"Together we can leave this place better than we found it," McCain said.
In the early 1900s, Arizonans dammed the Salt River for a canal system to deliver water across the Valley. The current Granite Reef Diversion Dam was completed in 1908.
It was the single most important factor in the Phoenix area's eventual growth. But cutting off the water supply left a dry, ugly scar that twisted across Mesa, Tempe, Phoenix and the West Valley.
It was a gigantic ditch, more than a mile wide in some sections, that became a commercial landfill, garbage dump and asphalt pit.
In the 1960s, James Elmore, founding dean of Arizona State University's College of Architecture, challenged his faculty to "do something with the river."
Given just eight weeks, a group of 16 fifth-year architecture students came up with a grandiose plan that included the initial idea for Tempe Town Lake, along with other water projects across the 45 miles.
Tempe Town Lake was the only part of their vision that reached fruition — albeit 30 years later.
Former Tempe mayors Neil Giuliano and Harry Mitchell championed Tempe Town Lake, while other Valley cities labeled the idea as overly ambitious and destined to fail.
Today, Tempe Town Lake is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the state, second only to the Grand Canyon, according to the city. Since its creation, the lake has had a $1.5 billion economic impact on the city, and 40,000 employees work within a mile of it.
Phoenix has taken on fragments of its section of the Rio Salado with extensive habitat restoration projects, but it was Tempe Town Lake's enormous economic success that rekindled McCain's passion for riverbed development.
"When you make a commitment to John McCain, you realize before you say 'yes,' you better do it," ASU President Michael Crow said Friday.
McCain last year asked Crow if ASU would take on the Rio Salado once more and bring together state leaders to tackle the project.
Crow said the university has committed, "everything in our power, everything that we have, every ounce of energy we have, to help facilitate this project." Already, 20 ASU classes are researching or assisting with the project, according to ASU officials.
"We're all in," Crow said.
That was the sentiment reiterated by everyone in the room — from the mayors and council members from all six cities, tribal leaders, county politicians and federal government personnel.
Former U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor was one of the first federal politicians to pursue Rio Salado development. He commended the projects that have already been completed, including Tempe Town Lake and the Audubon Center in Phoenix and pledged his support for the continued revival of the riverbed.
"Here we are this morning, still inspired by Dr. Elmore, his concept and the belief that we can bring life back to the river and to continue this project so that it does connect all of us from the west side to the east side, from Mesa to Buckeye, and create the amenity that not only brings us economic development and brings us recreation, but is an attraction so that we can continue to bring development into our great state," Pastor said.
What could it be?
Duke Reiter, Crow's senior policy adviser, told those in the audience that if they were waiting for a "big reveal" of what the riverbed development will look like, they were out of luck.
"We are not bringing a preordained solution or answer to what could be here — that's going to come from all of you," Reiter said.
He said ASU will serve as the organizer of ideas, but those ideas should come from the community.
The suggestions should adhere to some basic parameters, he said. Anything proposed should be a "water positive" project, provide an economic development benefit and serve as a community asset, Reiter said.
As for funding, Reiter said ASU has studied how other massive water projects, like the San Antonio River Walk, were funded and found that they use a variety of sources, from federal money to charitable gifts. His team is currently exploring all options, he said.
In his statement, McCain said the project will take "resources, energy, time and persistence but ultimately it will enhance the environment, boost our economy and unite our people."
McCain in July was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer, after doctors removed a blood clot during a procedure at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix.
He has previously referred to the Rio Salado as his legacy project and encouraged the project to forge ahead with haste. As Cindy McCain noted at Friday's event, "We know all too well that patience has never been in my husband's DNA."
It's been more than 50 years since initial plans for the Rio Salado were crafted. Crow, much like McCain, said he'd like to make sure the riverbed's next chapter — now boosted by the commitments of the region's cities, reservations and county leaders — doesn't take quite so long to achieve.
"It won't take as long as people think because I believe anything people talk about getting done in 50 years can get done in 10. The rest is just a discussion. And so you can have less discussion and just make it work," Crow said.