After hearing from the public about whether a row of 1950s motels are worth saving or merely eyesores, the board of Pima Community College decided to slow its decision making and form a community advisory committee.

The move gives more time and power to people who favor preservation while the board turns its full attention to the critical business of replacing the college chancellor, Lee Lambert, who is leaving.

The issue with the motels

Three condemned historic motels next to Pima Community College’s downtown campus could either be restored and put to use as college offices, or they could be demolished and replaced with parking lots.

The college bought three motels — the Tucson Inn, the Copper Cactus Inn and the Frontier Motel — in 2017-2018 and has been holding the properties vacant. These properties are a way for the college to expand its footprint to the north.

The buildings are contributors to the Miracle Mile Historic District — once a hip tourism gateway glowing with neon on its mid-century motels and now a key redevelopment zone.

The college board had planned to spend up to $10 million on restoration and partial demolition. Early ideas included restoring the Tucson Inn diner as a learning lab for culinary students. But new estimates put the price at $35.7 million due to construction costs and the poor condition of the old buildings, and the board is considering demolishing all or most of the buildings. The old neon signs, including the recently restored and iconic Tucson Inn sign, would be left standing on the north side of new parking lots.

The college board held a public hearing to listen to community comments in May, which drew a crowd of about 80 people with more watching the virtual meeting. 

At their meeting this week, several board members reiterated that no decision has been made yet and indicated their attention is on other college issues.

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What’s new

The board says it will focus on replacing Chancellor Lee Lambert, who recently announced he is leaving his job as of Aug. 1 and taking a sabbatical for the month of July. At their meeting this week, the board delayed choosing an acting chancellor, so they will schedule an additional meeting this month to name someone to fill in. Meanwhile, the board has a plan and timeline for identifying an interim chancellor using a search firm and including college and community input. 

What’s next

Board chair Theresa Riel said the board won’t consider the motel projects for 6-8 months. Instead, they plan to form a community advisory committee to explore the options for the motels. The college isn’t in a position to spend $30 million or more to refurbish the properties, Riel said, but the advisors could seek partners and funding, consider what can be saved, and make recommendations to the board, likely a year from now or after a new chancellor is hired. The board is “open to great ideas,” Riel said after the meeting. 

How to participate

The board is likely to establish the advisory group in an August or September meeting. See college board meeting notices and agendas and see contact information for board members

More ways to get involved 

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Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.