TIJUANA — The monument--a giant clock dangling from a 200-foot arch--was to be Tijuana's emblem for a new millennium. Instead it has come to symbolize the city's fractious politics.
With work barely begun, the nearly $700,000 project has been delayed for months amid bickering between the mayor who launched it, Francisco Vega de Lamadrid, and foes who see it as a waste of public money.
The setbacks, including mundane construction snags, mean the monument won't be finished in time to usher in the new year, as had been hoped. Opponents are vowing a fresh fight to vanquish the project next year.
Backers of the project draw parallels to the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building. They say the clock would enhance the image of a forward-thinking border city that is visited by millions each year but lacks a universally known landmark.
Under current plans, the arena-style clock and 300-square-foot video screen would hang from the arch above the Avenida Revolucion tourist zone. The monument is envisioned as the centerpiece of a broader revamping of the downtown area.
"This would be a symbol for the new millennium and, for us, a turning point for the remodeling [effort]," said Oscar Escobedo Carignan, a restaurant owner who is the city's economic development coordinator. "We're looking for something that will distinguish the city of Tijuana."
Escobedo said the creation might prove a defining symbol for the entire U.S.-Mexico border.
Detractors see the project as an extravagant gimmick and a bid by Vega to leave a mark just when he is seeking the nomination of the National Action Party (PAN) for governor of the state of Baja California. The general election is next July.
Vega, who has taken a leave as mayor at least until a gubernatorial nominee is picked next month, was ridiculed recently after an aborted bid to name a local highway after Carlos Santana, the Grammy Award-winning musician and former Tijuana resident. (In the end, Vega ended up handing Santana keys to the city during a homecoming ceremony.)
Critics of the clock project say the city has too many other needs and should not be building what they see as a fanciful adornment.
"All cities have priorities. Every city has to do first one thing and then another thing. This city needs another type of investment instead of a clock monument," said Councilman David Saul Guakil, who belongs to the rival Institutional Revolutionary Party.
The project was approved by the council's PAN majority, with members of two opposition parties dissenting.
Saul said the city has to make do with a $100-million budget even as new neighborhoods sprout in need of water, sewerage, garbage collection and other services. "How can we spend $600,000 on a decorative object?" he asked. He vowed to oppose any move to renew funds in the next budget.
City officials say they will cover half of the project's costs with private donations. A beer maker and a cement company, for example, have committed $50,000 each, Escobedo said. He said sales of the clock's likeness, which would be licensed for use on T-shirts and other souvenirs, eventually would cover the public outlay and generate continuing revenues. Those funds would go to the municipal family services agency, he said.
But the project has been tangled from the start. The city's controller, with whom Vega has feuded, raised questions about whether bidding rules were followed in the search for builders. Then a promising contractor backed out. City crews digging the foundation hit water, causing delays. Some critics objected to the location.
Amid the political sniping, the local branch of Mexico's Chamber of Commerce offered to take over the project. But the group backed out after discovering that the design now includes the video screen and that corporate sponsors were being lined up.
"It went from a monument to being about commercial advertisements," said chamber President Arturo Gonzalez Cruz.
Still, city officials remain optimistic and hope to erect the monument by the city's 112th birthday next summer. They have settled on a Tijuana firm to build the arch--either of stainless steel or copper--and a Sacramento company to supply the clock.
Escobedo conceded that the monument proposal has been controversial. But he scoffed at suggestions that it was a way to boost Vega's political fortunes. "People don't get elected just because you build a clock," he said. "We're convinced this will help the image of the city."