By June C. Hussey –
10 Years Later, Momentum is on the Rise
Guided by a carefully researched economic blueprint, Southern Arizona’s four-county, asset-rich region has become a hot spot for economic development in the Southwest.
Ten years after launching Tucson’s Economic Blueprint, it’s the fall of 2017 and Sun Corridor Inc. President and CEO Joe Snell can make a strong argument that it’s working. In the last several months, the region struck pay dirt with 5,900 new jobs spread among 18 companies, the largest haul since the organization’s inception. Many of those jobs fall into the high-skilled, high-wage category, as targeted by the Economic Blueprint.
If you ask Snell, that’s not even the most exciting part. Like a euphoric gold miner grinning ear to ear at a pan of shiny golden flecks, he is certain the best is yet to come.
“Our pipeline is bursting at the seams,” Snell beamed from his seat in Sun Corridor Inc.’s conference room, where policymakers and business leaders leave politics at the door to brainstorm about ways to attract new business. Every step forward is progress.
“In March, we hosted 45 site selectors here for the first time ever,” Snell said, pointing out that he’s keeping the pedal to the metal with media trips and road shows. “We have a great story to tell and we need to keep telling it. We can keep the momentum going as long as we keep pushing and earning it,” he said.
Bringing the region together
Things weren’t always so rosy. Snell said Southern Arizona’s recent economic windfall is a return on a 10-year investment, the result of a carefully orchestrated and doggedly implemented strategy.
Before being tapped to lead TREO (Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, later rebranded as Sun Corridor Inc.), Snell ran a similar organization in Denver, where he worked with 52 cities and eight counties to successfully develop significant regional economic projects like the Denver Broncos’ new football stadium and Denver International Airport. Those experiences taught him that big things are possible when communities work together. By no coincidence, Denver today is among the fastest growing cities in the United States, a magnet for millennials and the businesses that employ them.
Tucson may never aspire to be an NFL city like Denver or Phoenix, but leaders like Snell have looked to such cities for valuable lessons on how to “get in the game.”
When he first arrived from the Mile High City sporting his big-city goggles in 2005, Snell said his first order of business was to develop a plan to bring together Tucson’s historically fractured community. Polarities, infighting and territorialism would only derail future economic prosperity. So Snell set out to forge good relationships with policy makers and industry leaders throughout the region, asking each one to take ownership in the new effort.
A comprehensive industry-targeting study by Harvard University expert
Michael Porter led to a strategic plan that would guide Tucson in driving its own destiny. Tucson’s Economic Blueprint was unveiled in 2007, just as an economic recession the size of the Grand Canyon was looming.
Southern Arizona weathered that deep and prolonged recession while Snell and his board at Sun Corridor Inc. fine-tuned the strategy and stayed the course, marketing and selling Tucson and its surrounding environs as a regional magnet for four targeted industries – aerospace and defense, transportation and logistics, alternative energy and natural resources (including mining technology) and biosciences and healthcare.
To help support the attraction and expansion of the industries, Sun Corridor Inc. rallied troops and resources around four essential pillars for success – talent acquisition, infrastructure, healthcare and business environment. Snell credits Southern Arizona business and community leaders for coming together and laying the essential groundwork that allows the region to compete today at an elite level.
The power of momentum
The region is on a roll and momentum is building, said Dr. Eric Walk, senior VP for medical and scientific affairs and chief medical officer at Roche Tissue Diagnostics, known locally as Ventana Medical Systems, Inc. Roche Tissue
Diagnostics is a global leader and innovator of tissue-based cancer diagnostic solutions, providing more than 250 cancer tests with related instruments to more than 90 countries to improve outcomes for the 14 million people diagnosed with cancer annually. It’s also one of the largest biotech companies in the state, with about 1,300 employees at its Oro Valley headquarters.
Contributing to Roche Tissue Diagnostics’ growth, Walk said, are the close proximity to the University of Arizona, a receptive business environment in Oro Valley and Arizona and the momentum of Southern Arizona’s emerging bioscience and biotech community.
The homegrown company’s success is a strong testament to the region’s ability to support the growing biosciences/diagnostics industry. With Roche Tissue Diagnostics’ strong presence and mentorship role, the number of biotech companies is growing.
“Companies like Accelerate Diagnostics, HTG Molecular Diagnostics, SalutarisMD and Cancer Prevention Pharmaceuticals, together with Roche Tissue Diagnostics and organizations like TGen (Translational Genomics Research Institute), have created a critical mass that I think is key for the Southern Arizona biotech community to grow even further,” Walk said.
It takes talent
Ask Snell the five most important factors in growing a robust economy and he’ll respond, “Talent, talent, talent, talent, talent” – and others will agree.
“It’s critically important,” said David Hutchens, president and CEO at UNS Energy Corp., Tucson Electric Power and UniSource Energy Services. Hutchens also is chairman of the board of Sun Corridor Inc. “Prospective employers always focus on the quality of our local workforce, and we’re fortunate to have a diverse and talented population.”
“We passionately feel that continuing to grow a more robust, vibrant and interconnected talent pool will benefit all organizations in the region,” Walk said. “Having a vibrant talent pool not only helps us acquire top talent, it also helps nurture a really dynamic ecosystem of job opportunities, career pathways and personal growth.”
Walk added that he’s optimistic about the future of biosciences in Southern Arizona.
“We have a top-tier, BIO5 Institute at the UA. The UA has expressed a strong interest in working with companies in a transitional medicine sense,” he said. “We already have a small group of enthusiastic biotech companies. In addition, we are very fortunate to have the Desert Angels, an investor group that has invested more than $41 million since 2000.”
The University of Arizona’s new president, Dr. Robert C. Robbins, who was hired in April, already is on board with keeping up the recent economic development momentum and making sure the UA is contributing.
“I’m impressed with Tucson and how its partnership with the university can continue to do great things,” Robbins said. “We’ve been blessed to have Raytheon here. We’re now blessed to have Caterpillar here.
“I’ll be looking for the next one, the next one and the next one, and how can we, as a university, help to partner with all the stakeholders and government and the captains of industry to be able to make Tucson an attractive place for that next company.”
Strong border partners
One proponent with a strong voice for international trade is Guillermo Valencia, chairman of the Greater Nogales and Santa Cruz County Port Authority. He accepted Snell’s invitation to join Sun Corridor Inc.’s board because he believed it was mutually beneficial.
“I’ve learned that Nogales has to partner with like-minded people to promote our area. We cannot do it alone,” Valencia said. “When we get together with other groups and pull the rope in the same direction, we can get a lot more accomplished.
“Sun Corridor Inc. pools the best resources of the entire region so we, as a group, can market all of our assets together to attract business. Whether it’s to Tucson or Nogales, it’s a plus for our area,” said Valencia.
Major employers including Target, HomeGoods and FritoLay have moved distribution centers into the area from Casa Grande to Tucson to Nogales where more than 150 transportation and logistics providers help them move goods up and down the corridor and throughout the U.S.
“There are a lot of good things happening up and down the Arizona-Mexico trade corridor. There has been $1.8 billion invested in infrastructure on the Mexican side, from Mexico City to Nogales. We’re putting in another $130 million from our port of entry to our interstate. We’re preparing for future growth. We believe there’s a lot of room for growth and, by default, a lot of benefit to Southern Arizona and Mexico.”
Valencia describes the Mariposa Port of Entry as “the big engine in Southern Arizona.” It processes 600,000 commercial vehicles and 21 million visitors annually. The port is the direct route between Mexico and the U.S. for nearly all Mexican agricultural products going east, as well as mining exports and imports, auto parts, clothing to be assembled and consumer products heading to Mexico. A total of $30 billion in imports flow into the U.S. and $11 billion in exports into Mexico pass through the port every year, by Valencia’s counts.
No other U.S./Mexico border crossing has the capacity to move products like Nogales does – making it a tremendous asset to Southern Arizona,
Valencia said. “We’ve worked with every agency on efficiencies,” said Valencia. “We’ve developed expertise, logistics and polished the whole process to make our port efficient, competitive and beneficial to the entire region.”
Going for more wins
With advocates like Walk, Robbins and Valencia and more than 70 member organizations backing up Sun Corridor Inc., the region is on a winning streak. If that streak continues, as experts project, Southern Arizona can continue on a track to being one of the most dynamic business centers in North America.
“We have reached a core critical mass that poises us to transform Southern Arizona into a real powerhouse of innovation and discovery,” Walk said. “We have all the necessary ingredients.”
Robbins added, “We’ve got to work together, because there are going to be disagreements, there are going to be challenges and the only way to solve those is to have meaningful deep
relationships, great communication and a shared vision for not only the university, but the entire region and the community.”