Lasting Impressions

By David B. Pittman –

That all-important first impression can influence an opinion forever – set it in stone, so to speak.

That’s why the Tucson Metro Chamber, in partnership with AAA Landscape, has launched the First Impressions project. The collaboration – which includes support from six other Tucson businesses – aims to beautify a six-tenths-of-a-mile stretch of Tucson Boulevard between Tucson International Airport and Valencia Road – the gateway to Tucson for air travelers.
“Some 3.6 million travelers go in and out of our airport every year,” said Mike Varney, president and CEO of Tucson Metro Chamber, at a groundbreaking ceremony to launch the project.
Instead of what has been “a plain-Jane landscape,” six large medians outside the airport entrance will be beautified with colorful Southwestern landscapes, as well as art and cultural treatments designed to bring “memorable experiences” and produce a throng of positive first impressions of the Old Pueblo, Varney said.

The project would not have happened without the financial assistance of six business sponsors, each of whom contributed $60,000. Sponsors are Crest Insurance Group, the Jim Click Automotive Team, Casino Del Sol Resort, Desert Diamond Casinos & Entertainment, Vantage West Credit Union and Visit Tucson.

AAA Landscape designed the improvements and will complete them at a significantly discounted rate.

Discussion of the First Impressions project started about three years ago when Richard Underwood, founder and owner of AAA Landscape and chairman of Tucson Metro Chamber’s community service committee, first came up with the concept.

“As I have driven in and out of the airport, I have often thought that influential business people and site locators visiting our community don’t get a good first impression as they drive from the airport to wherever,” Underwood said. “I thought, ‘What if we took the road just outside the airport and landscaped it like a resort or a master-planned community?’ I pitched that to the chamber and they thought it was a pretty good idea.”

Efforts to raise funds to pay for the project were slow to get off the ground and the project languished for about two years until Kurt Wadlington, who heads Sundt Construction’s Tucson operation, took over as chair of the chamber’s board.

“Fundraising for the project didn’t take off as we had hoped,” Wadlington said. “Of course the economy had a lot to do with that. It’s difficult to raise $300,000 or $400,000 when businesses are struggling.” His tenure as board chair recently ended and he now serves as past chair.

Fundraising was also challenging because many business owners believed it was the responsibility of government to provide landscaping on public property.

Determined to make the project happen, Wadlington devised a plan to solicit six major contributors, each of whom would fund work on a specific median. The plan allows for signage crediting the sponsors for their contributions.

Wadlington turned to Cody Ritchie – president of Crest Insurance Group and a chamber board member – to lead the revamped fundraising campaign.

“When Kurt asked me to get involved, I felt I had to step up to the plate because I’ve been talking about this for a long time,” Ritchie said. “This is an economic development effort. If we can make a better first impression on business executives that fly into Tucson, it will allow them to focus more on the great things in our area.”

After agreeing his company would be first to commit $60,000, Ritchie solicited other sponsors. He said raising the money was easier than he anticipated.

“My first call was to Jim Click,” Ritchie said. “Mr. Click didn’t hesitate to step up. Then both casinos jumped on board. Visit Tucson was fantastic. Then we approached Bob Ramirez (president and CEO) of Vantage West, who is a very, very good corporate citizen. He didn’t even bat an eye when we approached him.”

Underwood and other chamber leaders praised City of Tucson officials at the groundbreaking ceremony for providing approvals to get the project started on an expedited basis. Mayor Jonathan Rothschild praised the chamber and its members “for moving this community in the right direction.”

Bonnie Allin, president and CEO of Tucson Airport Authority, thanked the chamber, project sponsors and city officials for “coming together to work so hard to make this airport the economic asset it can and should be.”

Construction of the project is expected to wrap up this summer.

There is still one “last” benefit to be reaped from the project. “That first impression is also a last impression when that same visitor leaves Tucson,” Varney said.

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