Sun Corridor Inc. Forges Ahead with Economic Recovery Plan
By Jay Gonzales
Years of economic development momentum and collaboration in the Tucson region are paying off in ways no one could have predicted in the throes of a worldwide pandemic.
COVID-19 has crippled economies for nearly a year creating uncertainty for families, businesses and our future. Yet, Tucson finds itself in a better position than most for a post-COVID recovery that could set a path for a robust and resilient economic future. At least that’s what local economic officials believe, and they’re not sitting around waiting for something good to happen.
They are seizing on what they see as an opportunity.
From a strategic standpoint, Sun Corridor Inc. has formed a committee of the region’s most prominent business leaders that is deep into developing a recovery and resiliency plan. The team has identified five focus areas: company recruitment, workforce development/training, shovel-ready real estate and infrastructure, talent recruitment, and tourism recovery.
And in a position of strength, business and government leadership seems to be unified.
“I remember decisions that were made by this community to keep business out. I remember some of the second guessing. I don’t hear that today,” said Judy Rich, the new board chair at Sun Corridor Inc. and CEO of TMC HealthCare. “I hear healthy debate, but I hear consensus if it’s good for the community.”
That will be crucial when the recovery and resiliency plan is complete, said Joe Snell, president and CEO of Sun Corridor Inc.
“What I think helps is it’s a pretty diverse group that is putting this together,” Snell said. “There should be buy-in from the region’s top leaders. There shouldn’t be any rocks thrown at it.”
The recovery and resiliency committee was formed in the summer in light of promising economic rankings, including a spring Moody’s Analytics report that listed the Tucson region as one of the top 10 communities poised to quickly recover post-COVID-19 and high marks from a site selectors group that aids businesses and industry in corporate location selection. The first step was to identify focus areas, and it came up with the five.
After identifying the five focus areas, the committee’s 21 members under Chair Steve Eggen, a retired CFO from Raytheon Missile Systems, have formed working groups that are developing specific action items for each area. Those groups have begun bringing information through presentations to the entire committee. The timeline is for presentations to be done by the end of the year or early next year, with an action plan to be launched late first quarter or early second.
Admittedly, much work remains, Snell said. While the region is making a good impression on several fronts – most notably in talent development – some long-standing, underlying issues and perceptions must be addressed.
“We still have some challenges if we’re going to come out of this and remain strong after COVID,” Snell said. “We still are fighting some perception issues even though we’ve gained some ground. The perceptions of Southern Arizona are still moderate as a good place to do business. Some of that is a lack of awareness. “We need more resources to effectively tell our story out there.”
Foremost, Eggen said, is how to best position Southern Arizona post-pandemic.
“We’ve got to be thinking something different about how this all is going to be playing out,” Eggen said. “We have a community that has some opportunities as a result of this. There are some things here that have a stronger appeal than riding a subway packed with people.”
The most visible challenge within the committee’s focus areas that must be addressed, Snell said, is the familiar issue of the region’s roads, where improvement and progress are slow.
“In the latest perception study where we touched the nation’s largest site selectors, they basically said, ‘You’ve come a long way. You’ve made progress in improving your market position since 2006, but you absolutely have got to figure out the road issue.’ ”
The road issues include maintaining and developing everything from neighborhood streets to major arteries.
“The roads are in disarray. They’re not up to snuff with the competition,” Snell said. “It’s time to get creative and act with tenacity to address our roads.”
Attract and Develop Talent
Despite the roads, there have been significant gains in other long-held perceptions about Tucson as a place for business – most notably developing talent for the high-end businesses and industries eyeing the city.
Snell credits the University of Arizona, Pima Community College and Arizona State University for turning the tide in the region, giving businesses confidence that if they come here, the talent will be here to fill their jobs, even calling UArizona a “talent factory.”
“The No. 1 driver for companies is still the whole talent equation,” Snell said. “Back in 2006, 2007, we really were seen as a place that had major questions and whether businesses could find the talent here.
“What we’ve seen is a sea change where we’re believing that in certain industries, we can win that talent game, that we have the ability to produce the talented workforce.”
That’s especially true in aerospace, one of the industries that communities covet because of the potential for high-paying, high-tech jobs with upward mobility and innovation. Ten to 15 years ago, the Tucson region wasn’t really in play. Today, PCC is developing centers of excellence, and UArizona is focused on innovation in a number of high-tech areas, including aerospace and biosciences.
Pima Community College Chancellor Lee Lambert heads the subcommittee addressing workforce development and training. In his presentation to the full Recovery and Resiliency Committee, he said some of the short-term solutions as we emerge from the pandemic are centered around “reskilling” and “upskilling.”
The challenge will be providing those opportunities when most communication, meetings and classes are virtual, or the learning is a hybrid of virtual and in-person.
Through its recent development of its Centers of Excellence, Lambert said Pima is already in position to be a driver in the area of talent development.
“It requires that the college be well-connected and really be listening and engaging on all fronts,” Lambert said. “I think that’s what you’ve seen happening at Pima. We have been engaging with so many of our partners to understand their needs and then align our resources to their needs. I think that’s partly why you’re seeing Pima emerging in a way that is more supportive of the needs of the community.”
Dr. Robert C. Robbins, UArizona’s president since June 2017, said the university is attracting top talent among its faculty, which leads to sending top graduates into the job market.
“There are people from all over the world who seek to come to the university to advance their academic mission and careers,” Robbins said. “Our professors are the ones that these mentees will gravitate toward. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have some of the most talented faculty in the world, especially around astronomy, around optical science, the life sciences.”
Robbins’ leadership and UArizona’s visibility on the COVID-19 front at the outset of the pandemic – with testing and protocols – have also drawn a huge spotlight on the region’s growing capability in the biosciences.
“The science that we’ve known the University of Arizona for is still a major driver for this economy and probably will be more important going into the future,” Snell said. “I think the visibility that Dr. Robbins has created has definitely helped us because, remember, one of the things we’ve always struggled with is living in the shadow of Phoenix. Getting that visibility out there is important.”
Robbins said “it wasn’t intentional” that UArizona catapulted to the forefront of the biosciences industry, rather it was a circumstance of the pandemic and the university’s robust COVID-19 response. Robbins, a physician heading up a major research university, was frequently on national television and UArizona developed its own COVID-19 tests. The highly visible former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona was put in charge of UArizona’s incident command system.
“No. 1, we knew from the start that taking this seriously was going to be important,” Robbins said. “No. 2 is that we had to control our own destiny because we were going to be at the end of the supply chain. So getting our own tests, producing our own test kits, getting an organized incident command system with Dr. Carmona leading that, we made all the right moves early on.”
It was an added boost to the momentum already being generated in the region’s biosciences industry. In mid-November, Sun Corridor Inc. released a summary of advances in creating jobs and gaining funding for the biosciences sector:
- Arizona added 9,696 bioscience industry jobs between 2016-2018, an 8.3% growth rate, faster than the state’s overall job growth rate of 6.2%.
- From 2017-2018, wages for bioscience workers in Arizona increased by 4.9%. The national average increase was 4.1%.
- In 2018, bioscience annual wages were nearly $18,000 above Arizona’s private-sector average.
- From 2016-2018, bioscience research and development at Arizona’s universities grew by 25%, more than twice the national rate of 12%.
Going forward, Eggen said, the recovery and resiliency plan must be realistic with easy-to-measure results that economic development leaders can include in their pitch to boost Tucson as the nation recovers.
“We’re not going to be able to solve everything. We’re not going to be able to attack everything we need to,” Eggen said. “We need to focus on those areas where we think we can be the most successful.
“Really, those areas kind of play into where Sun Corridor Inc.’s emphasis has been. You talk about aerospace and defense as a category, biotech, logistics, mining and energy. Those are focus areas that have certainly been at the forefront for Sun Corridor Inc.”
An additional recovery category for the committee is one of the region’s longtime, baseline industries – tourism.
Brent DeRaad, president and CEO of Visit Tucson, was the first to present to the full committee on the crucial need for a recovery plan. Tourism is one of the hardest hit areas with acclaimed restaurants closing and travel and hotel business down significantly.
“It’s really gratifying to us to have tourism included in the overall recovery package for Tucson,” DeRaad said. “Just in 2019, the amount of spending by visitors was $2.6 billion – with a ‘B.’ When you look at that and then look at the impacts on tourism and travel from COVID-19, it’s really been substantial. We need to see tourism and travel get back to where it was in 2019.”
With tourism and travel business down about 35%, tourism jobs are also taking a hit. Visit Tucson had already established a tourism recovery plan. But now, with tourism as a component of the overall Sun Corridor Inc. recovery plan, the work can be seamless.
“One of the biggest things we’ve seen is that great places to live are great places to visit, and it’s really incumbent upon us to make sure that we’re partnering with Sun Corridor Inc. and with the business community as a whole to make Tucson a stronger place,” he said. “We need better roads. How do we enhance attractions? How do we get people visiting restaurants and keep these restaurants alive? How do we make Tucson better?”
Rich, as chair of Sun Corridor Inc. and TMC’s CEO, has a unique perspective every day on the region’s ability to recover. The nurse of 17 years is not only managing a hospital during a pandemic and its priorities, she’s also helping to lead the economic development strategy.
“From an economic development perspective, this is the work that’s going to continue to grow us economically as a community,” she said. “I really believe that it’s good work. It’s solid work. And it’s going to reap great benefits.
“If you’re talking about life after COVID, I would say that’s a little different. I have a different perspective on that. I think that the people who live here have a lot to do with how that life is going to look. If we continue to wear masks, if we sign up for a vaccine once it’s ready for us, if we respect the rules of social distancing and we follow those guidelines, I think this community can get back very rapidly next year. If we drag our feet on adopting the science that’s going to be out there for us, then I think it could drag on for a long, long time.”