About a month after he was diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer, Sen. John McCain shared with a group of Arizona State University students an ambitious plan to restore the dry Salt River bed that crisscrosses the Valley.
A century ago, dams dried up the portion of the river that cut across the Phoenix area, leaving a jagged scar in its place.
McCain wanted to bring life back to the riverbed with a project that could rival or even surpass the famous San Antonio Riverwalk and could be one of the most significant environmental and economic additions in Phoenix history.
It was one of McCain’s final initiatives — one that he knew wouldn’t be accomplished before his death, but one he hoped would leave a lasting legacy on his adopted home state of Arizona.
McCain died Saturday, making discussions of his legacy more timely than ever.
While mourning his death, local leaders including former Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton recommitted their support of “Rio Reimagined” — the name given to McCain’s grand vision of a 45-mile development.
“Frankly, after a while, you start thinking about your legacy. It may not be completed in my time, but I believe that someday it will be,” McCain told the ASU students one year ago.
Sen. John McCain, in an August 2017 talk with ASU special adviser Duke Reiter, says a revived Rio Salado Project would ensure Arizona’s economic future and be a legacy not only for him, but for the many people required to bring the project to life.
Old idea, new energy
McCain’s call to restore the riverbed isn’t a new idea.
It’s a continuation of a plan hatched more than 50 years ago by a team of undergraduate architecture students at ASU, who thought putting water back into the river would transform the riverbanks into an economic and recreational boomtown.
The students are credited as the minds behind what is now Tempe Town Lake — the only part of their grand vision that came to fruition.
“He (McCain) was believer in the revitalization of the Salt River from the beginning, and a great ally with Tempe when we moved forward with the Tempe Town Lake in 1997,” said former Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano.
Tempe Town Lake’s success — the lake has had a $1.5 billion economic impact on the city — prompted other elected officials and civic leaders to explore projects for the rest of the riverbed.
But that work has been slow.
Phoenix spent $120 million to turn the swath of riverbed between 24th Street and 19th Avenue into a riparian area with vegetation and some water.
It’s been successful but slow going, Deputy City Manager Karen Peters told The Arizona Republic last year. Many people aren’t aware of the habitat rehabilitation, she said.
The Audubon Society opened a facility on the banks of the rehabilitated habitat at Central Avenue about eight years ago.
Executive Director Sonia Perillo said before the restoration, there were fewer than 20 species of birds in the area. Now, there are more than 200.
On Phoenix’s west side, at 91st Avenue, the city also rehabilitated 700 acres in and around the Salt River, restoring a riparian habitat known as the Tres Rios Wetlands.
When McCain calls, leaders answer
McCain’s interest in the Rio Salado began decades ago.
Stanton remembered the senator asking to meet with him about the riverbed as soon as Stanton was elected mayor in 2011.
“From day one this was an issue of passion for him — that Phoenix make Rio Salado a priority,” Stanton said.
But it was just last year that McCain teamed with ASU and called for all Valley cities to commit to resurrecting the stalled revitalization plans.
ASU pledged its full support to McCain’s vision and agreed to serve as the guiding force to push the project forward. Already, the university has tasked students with participating in the project.
In March, leaders from all of the cities and Indian communities that the river traverses gathered in a theater overlooking Tempe Town Lake to formally commit to the project as well.
McCain was unable to make the trip from his Cornville ranch, but his wife, Arizona native Cindy McCain, attended in his place.
“This is an amazing morning. Remember this, because this is a game-changer today,” Cindy told attendees.
In a statement read by his wife, McCain said the 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.
A legacy for all
Mesa Mayor John Giles was an intern for McCain when he was a congressman in 1985. Giles said McCain was “a personal hero and mentor of mine.”
“He has a keen eye for the obvious. He is frustrated when he sees good ideas die for lack of political courage. He has the clout both here and at the national level to push good ideas,” Giles told The Arizona Republic last year. “(The Rio Salado development) would be a great legacy for the senator.”
When talking with ASU students last year, McCain noted that the development not only will be part of his legacy but also that of all the visionaries before him, and the students and leaders who will continue the project after him.
“I don’t mean to be a little dramatic, but I believe if we get this done, someday your kids and you will be walking along and you’ll be able to say, ‘I played a role in that. I was part of the effort that made this such a wonderful place to raise you kids and for you to have a better life than the one you had before I started on it.’
“That’s kind of a nice legacy,” he said.
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