In the Valley of the Sun, a new desert oasis

As waters gush into a new lake in the Southwest, officials hope the waterfront will bring a flow of visitors and cash.

On a typical workday, copier repairman Jim Quiggle finds solace just a short drive away as he retreats from this torrid desert environment known as the Valley of the Sun.

Here in the air-conditioned confines of his black sports car, he sits under a concrete overpass, completes the paperwork of the day, and catches glimpses of the new, pale blue expanse ahead.

It's not every day one gets to see a lake in the desert - even if it is man-made.

"When it's 101 degrees out like it is now, it's kind of nice to be able to look out and see a lake," says Mr. Quiggle, staring off into the distance. "It just looks cool. That's why I keep coming back."

Officials in this college city of 170,000 people are banking on the fact that he will not be alone.

Cities across the nation have found how luring water can be. The downtown areas of Minneapolis and Baltimore, for example, have boomed since they've revitalized the banks of their natural waterfronts. In San Antonio, the popular Riverwalk has become the No. 1 tourist destination in Texas, attracting 5.2 million visitors last year to its 120 restaurants, shops, and hotels dotting the shoreline.

"I don't know what it is about water, but it sure does pack them in," says Bob Buchanan, a long-time restaurant and property owner in San Antonio. He says the blueprint to success is simple. Create a project where the locals can live and play and one that out-of-towners would not think of missing.

Tempe had a problem, however: It had no waterfront. So they decided just to create their own.

About $45 million has been spent to help transform a normally dry riverbed into a 2-mile-long lake, which the city hopes will provide a water-splashed oasis of recreation and economic development - and attract cash-heavy visitors from across Arizona and the nation.

Students' dreams realized

Last week, Town Lake, as it is called, was finally filled to capacity with nearly a billion gallons of water from the Colorado River. The water was drawn from 221 miles away and pumped through a canal system. The lake, with its giant Japanese-made inflatable dams on each end, is set to open in November.

The long-awaited project got its start in an Arizona State University classroom in 1966, when a group of architecture students dreamed the city's dry riverbed would again flow with water and attract restaurants and shops.

"We were all optimists and knew it was going to happen some time - we just didn't know when," says Robert Calhoun, a Phoenix architect who was part of the 1966 class.

Voters in the county, however, rejected an elaborate and expensive version of the project in 1987, so Tempe began to forge ahead with its own idea, using the student plan as a starting point. Though the original plan of a reborn river with winding streams proved impractical, the students' idea of a festive dining and recreational area remains key to the project.

Investing in the future

About $100 million had been pumped into Town Lake in those 12 years, and officials expect the price tag to hit at least $200 million by the time the project is complete.

Critics have charged that the money should have been funneled elsewhere to fund more pressing community needs. But Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano defends the city's spending.

"It is essential for our long-term future," he says, adding that the riverbed represents the last 12 percent of undeveloped land in the city. "It's important for our quality of life and for our economic survival. There's no way around it."

Tempe plans to fill the shores of their creation with $1.2 billion worth of hotels, restaurants, and a new conference center.

So far, the lake has attracted a number of gawkers.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, an estimated 800 people stopped by the shores to look and wonder at the new desert oasis. And the crowds seem to keep coming.

"It's kind of a refreshing thing to have in the middle of the city," says Rhonda Turman, a student who studies from a spot overlooking the lake. "There's a serenity, a tranquillity to it."

In June, Mr. Calhoun and other members of the 1966 class got to see their dream realized when Tempe officials turned a valve and opened the floodgates for the long-awaited project.

"I was thinking that it's about time," says Calhoun, who attended the valve-turning ceremony. "It's not important that what you see is not exactly what we came up with. What's important is that it got done and it will be there for the community."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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