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By Brenna Goth
In the final year of his life, John McCain pushed a project he said could become his legacy: bringing life back to a dry riverbed that runs through metropolitan Phoenix.
McCain shared that vision with a group of university students last August, one year to the day before the Arizona GOP senator died from brain cancer. Now it’s up to a web of Arizona communities, policymakers, and planners to make it happen.
Lori Singleton wants the statewide advocacy group she leads to help set the course. She is president and CEO of Arizona Forward, an organization focused on environmental sustainability and economic development, with members including Honeywell International Inc., Intel Corp., and Freeport-McMoRan Inc.
Backers of the McCain-supported project say revitalizing a roughly 50-mile stretch of the Salt River will turn a dusty eyesore into an attraction similar to San Antonio’s River Walk that benefits businesses and residents. Singleton has a personal connection to that idea, as a woman who moved to Arizona as a child from Texas and who cites the state’s natural beauty as a reason she’s still here.
Singleton’s environmental work in Arizona stretches back decades through her previous job at the Salt River Project, or SRP. The company is one of Arizona’s biggest power and water utilities that manages dams and reservoirs along the river.
Service on the boards of bird and wildlife organizations located on the Salt River’s metro-area banks also gave Singleton a passion for the possibilities a new plan for the river holds, she said.
“I think we can be that organization that continues the dialogue and the enthusiasm,” she told Bloomberg Environment.
Arizona Forward’s connection to the Salt River goes back to the 1960s, and members later drafted the legislation that allowed the Phoenix-area city of Tempe to create a lake from an unsightly riverbed. The new project, dubbed the Rio Reimagined or Rio Salado 2.0 for the Spanish translation of Salt River, is one of the organization’s top priorities.
Focusing Arizona Forward’s resources was among Singleton’s goals when she took over the organization less than a year ago. The group now has four primary initiatives related to forest health, urban waterways, electric vehicles, and reinventing the canals that flow through metro Phoenix.
They all center on sustainability and quality of life, Singleton said. She honed those interests during a 39-year career at SRP, where she started as an administrative assistant before renewable resources were a priority.
“That was when you didn’t hear the word ‘sustainability,’” Singleton said.
Singleton ended her tenure at SRP as an executive who developed renewable programs. During her time there, she started the nation’s largest lawn mower recycling program and a solar incentive program for residential and business customers, she said.
Singleton was an Arizona Forward board member through SRP before becoming CEO. With her sustainability background, Singleton was an easy choice when the board sought a new leader for the organization, board chair David Skinner, area operations manager and senior vice president for engineering and architecture firm HDR Inc., told Bloomberg Environment.
Arizona Forward’s strength comes from uniting its heavy-hitter members, including some of Arizona’s biggest companies and governments, Singleton said.
The organization hosted a summit earlier this year that brought together project participants to see what worked in other cities with river attractions, such as San Antonio. Singleton said she’s taken potential donors to the riverbed to show them what it could become.
That’s important when a project spans decades and outlasts the terms of politicians, Skinner said. Previous plans for the Salt River revitalization sat shelved, and McCain himself couldn’t gain traction to revive them in previous years, the late senator said last year.
If realized, the reimagined river would be an asset supporters could be proud to tell their children they played a role in, McCain told Arizona State University students last year.
“I believe if we get this done, someday your kids and you will be walking along and you’ll be able to say to them, ‘I played a role in that. I was part of the effort that made this such a wonderful place for me to be able to raise you kids and for you to have a better life than the one that you had before I started on it,’” McCain said. “I think that’s kind of a nice legacy.”
Now, Arizona State University is spearheading a new vision of the river. Arizona Forward is one of multiple groups looking at the federal funding, community engagement and how to make the project sustainable from a water-planning perspective.
The idea has enjoyed widespread support, though planning is still in the early stages. McCain said last year that Phoenix-area mayors and tribes are on board, but that “like a lot of other things, you get into the details and it gets tough.”
Projects along the river could each have a different feel, depending on the community that’s already there. Some could mirror Tempe, which built a lake flanked by offices of companies such as State Farm, while others may remain less commercially developed.
Funding is also still under consideration. Federal funding will play a role among other sources yet to be determined, said Justin Schmid, marketing and public relations director for Arizona Forward.
Groups such as Vitalyst Health Foundation, which focuses on improving health in Arizona, knew early on that McCain wanted to bring the river project back to life, though its Arizona Forward membership, said Jon Ford, the foundation’s director of strategic initiatives.
The foundation has seen Arizona Forward refocus and re-prioritize under Singleton’s leadership, Ford said, with main initiatives limited to a handful where the group can make an impact. The foundation is looking forward to working with local residents along the Salt River to make it a project that people are invested in, Ford told Bloomberg Environment.
“All of these things play into whether or not we can have healthy communities,” he said.
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