By Gabrielle Fimbres –
The Great Recession left our region reaching for economic footing as we lag behind the nation in wages and job growth.
Arizona’s been slow to emerge from the economic crisis, and the Tucson region has recovered only 35 percent of the 31,400 jobs lost between 2008 and 2010.
Now the region has a plan to recover more quickly and close this prosperity gap.
Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities – known as TREO – brought together a diverse group of the region’s thought leaders to develop “We Win as One,” the 2014 Economic Blueprint Update, with the goal of advancing prosperity in Southern Arizona.
At the heart of the Blueprint Update is a five-year goal of creating 40,000 jobs – or 8,000 per year – with the focus on higher-wage export jobs that bring money to the Tucson region from elsewhere.
This is not just TREO’s responsibility – the job goal is a region-wide collective effort, according to Guy Gunther, TREO chairman and Greater Arizona VP and GM for CenturyLink.
“Everyone has a stake in economic development – as many organizations contribute expertise in infrastructure, financing, workforce development, policy and other initiatives. Together, we must prioritize decision making that gives us the best chance to succeed as a region,” Gunther said.
“Now more than ever, private and public sectors must work together to grow the economy,” added Joe Snell, TREO’s president and CEO.
“We need a unifying, overriding goal to achieve success,” Snell said. “With the 2014 Blueprint serving as the framework, our collective work will pay dividends down the road.”
Gunther said the 2014 Blueprint Update “sets us up for success.
“We have the leaders of the community saying we are not just going to talk about what needs to be done – we are going to roll up our sleeves to put together the recommendations and then follow through on them,” he said.
TREO, the region’s lead economic development coordinator, created Southern Arizona’s first Economic Blueprint in 2007. For decades, this region had relied on in-migration, construction and housing for job growth. TREO was tasked with coordinating regional efforts to diversify the economy and attract high-wage jobs.
The 2007 Blueprint outlined industry strengths and examined economic trends and opportunities.
But then came the Great Recession, and families and communities suffered job losses and financial devastation.
“The Great Recession hit us and it changed the world as we know it forever,” Snell said.
It was important to go back to business, government and community leaders to analyze the region’s competitiveness in a new economic landscape.
At the top of the priority list is job creation. The region’s annual job growth averaged about 7,700 jobs per year in the decades leading up to the recession. The community must work together to improve Tucson in order to make the region more attractive to business investment and return to this 2-percent average growth rate, Snell said.
The key focus areas of the 2014 Blueprint, which was sponsored by Tucson Electric Power, include talent, infrastructure, business environment and healthcare, with emphasis on four industry clusters:
- Aerospace and defense
- Bioscience and healthcare
- Alternative energy and natural resources
- Transportation and logistics
Developing talent through education and training is critical for the region, where only 24 percent of residents have bachelor’s degrees, Snell said. Also critical is building infrastructure.
He said the region is positioned well to serve as a logistics hub.
“Of the 83 companies we’ve helped expand or relocate in this region in the last eight years, many are logistics-related,” Snell said. “We need to look at our connectivity with Mexico and look at expanding the role of the airport.”
The region also boasts strengths in the aerospace and defense industry, with the fifth highest concentration of aerospace workers in the nation – as well as the bioscience/healthcare and the alternative energy/natural resources industries.
“We are in a competition to win additional opportunities – whether they are relocations or expansions – and we must address our gaps, leverage our strengths, put in measurements, put the right leaders in place and collaborate together,” Snell said.
Gunther said companies are now less interested in incentive programs. “The number one thing they are using as their criteria in deciding where they will go is the availability of talent. That is the new reality.”
The 2014 Blueprint Update will be followed by the launch of the Southern Arizona Dashboard Project – a joint initiative of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona and the University of Arizona. The Dashboard will track key indicators related to the economy – workforce, quality of place, infrastructure, health and education.
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the update signifies an important coming together of government and private interests in all areas, including infrastructure.
“It’s primarily important that we integrate business interests with local government interests,” he said. “While it’s all good and well that local and state governments are interested in infrastructure, unless the business community participates, it typically doesn’t go anywhere.
“Southern Arizona is poised to be at the crossroads of a major logistics center. Between huge markets in California and Texas, our proximity to Mexico to the south and points north puts us at the hub of the spokes of the wheel so we become perhaps in the future one of the more important logistics hubs in the Southwest.”
Creating an international interstate that includes the Tucson region – whether part of Interstate 11 or another project – is critical for the economy, Huckelberry said.
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said his office has worked extensively with community partners, including TREO and the city’s Office of Economic Initiatives, to attract business to the region with significant success.
“Tucson has a lot to offer – tech expertise, a transportation and logistics hub that’s perfectly suited for trade, and an outstanding quality of life. The more we promote these very real, very important positives, the more we help ourselves as a region,” Rothschild said.
Supporting military assets, encouraging innovation and engaging in collaboration between regional governments were also among topics explored.
Satish Hiremath, mayor of Oro Valley, chaired the Regional Governments Committee, and said the process created a rare coming together of leadership.
“The biggest thing that came out of it is that government leaders, elected officials and private leaders have to understand it’s got to be a 50-50 partnership,” Hiremath said. “When the economy is good, people can afford to play by themselves and not interact with surrounding elected officials and municipalities. This recession exposed structural weaknesses. We were operating as silos.
“We now understand we need each other to be successful. That’s a huge step for us. We have leadership at the government level that is truly concerned with the entire metro Tucson region and not so much so with their own community.”
David G. Hutchens, president and CEO of Tucson Electric Power, UNS Energy Corporation and UniSource Energy Services and chair of the Blueprint Update Business Environment Committee, said TEP sponsored the project with the goal of creating a stronger region.
“It’s the community we have chosen to live in and we want to make sure we support it,” Hutchens said. “And we have the same goal of growing profitably as any other business out there. Our business is dependent on the success of the communities we serve.”
Gunther said the Blueprint has the capacity to bring about real, positive change.
“The TREO team quarterbacked what was a remarkable team effort that involved industry leaders and public sector leaders meeting numerous times and putting together very actionable recommendations to improve the region,” he said.
“It set us up for success. We are in it together. We can do this. Despite the challenges we face, we have a lot going for us in this community. Now it is time for us to take it to the next level.”