Region Eyes Future with Renewed Collaboration
By Jay Gonzales
For the better part of 2021, businesses and communities everywhere spent their time and energy strategizing how to emerge economically from a historic, global pandemic.
At the same time, business leaders in Southern Arizona were hearing positive things about the region, mainly that it was better positioned for recovery than most communities because of its inherent characteristics– the wide-open spaces, the environment, the affordability.
Sensing an opportunity, business and government leaders banded together to build and start to implement a long-term plan for the economic future of the region. And therein lies the difference between Tucson’s economic reality today versus that of the past, and how it sets up the region for success in the future.
There’s a strong, collaborative sense of direction now that, admittedly, has not always been there.
“I think we’ve come a long way. Before Sun Corridor, the community was fractured and not as well-aligned as it is today,” said Lisa Lovallo, market VP for Southern Arizona Cox Communications. Lovallo also is a member of the Sun Corridor Inc. Chairman’s Circle. “We’ve had a breakthrough in the last four to five years where the private sector and the public sector are working much better together.”
Make no mistake, there’s massive work to be done to realize the region’s potential, business leaders say. But there is palpable optimism.
Evidence the number of economic development victories in the last several years, the two biggest being the 2016 arrival of a division of Caterpillar, the massive mining equipment manufacturing company, and the decision by Raytheon to expand its missiles operation here and add more than 2,000 jobs, while consolidating lines of business. Each of those efforts came about because of what some called unprecedented public- and private-sector collaboration in the community.
Another sign that the economic development interests in the region are on the same page is the group of private and public sector leaders who came together last year to build a plan to address the region’s economic challenges. The Pivot Playbook is the third comprehensive economic development plan produced by Sun Corridor Inc. in recent years, but this one has specific measurable initiatives and tasks that are now being put into play.
The Pivot Playbook acknowledges the major economic victories in the region while at the same time recognizes that it’s still not where it wants to be when it comes to jobs, attracting top companies, infrastructure, the talent pool and overall economic strength.
“We have made some progress with Caterpillar, Raytheon, TuSimple and many others,” said Joe Snell, president and CEO at Sun Corridor Inc. “We still have much to do. At some point, to take that next bold step, we’re going to have to have investment.”
That time and that opportunity are now, said Snell, with the federal government’s $1 trillion infrastructure improvement initiative that can begin to address the backlog of infrastructure needs in the region. There will be heavy competition for funding over the next several months and getting the region’s fair share is critical to positioning for future economic development and growth.
To win in that arena, the economic development community is going to have to show the same level of collaboration that it has in recent years – maybe more.
To that end, this may be the time that the Tucson region must collaboratively decide what it aims to be to compete for the jobs and the industries that define a thriving community. The pieces are here with a top-ranked research university, a burgeoning high-tech industry sector and more cohesion among the various sectors.
So where does the region get its future direction?
“Economic development is a long game,” Snell said. “Our original Economic Blueprint was an exercise in creating a vision for Tucson, and it still stands firm today.
“You have to have a purpose and know where you’re headed. There are going to be people that say we can’t have growth because it hurts the environment. The reality is we need economic growth to pay for our quality of life. We are able to find the balance between growing our economy and preserving and protecting the assets that make us unique.”
With three massive entities – Pima County, the City of Tucson and the University of Arizona – that have their own long-term visions, and in some cases their own economic development plans, and add on a business community that has become significantly more engaged entities in recent years, bringing all of those together for a cohesive direction may sound out of reach.
Jan Lesher, the newly appointed Pima County Administrator, is a Tucson native who has been through all the iterations of economic development plans both through her political involvement here and as former director of the Arizona Department of Commerce under Gov. Janet Napolitano.
Up to now, Lesher said, economic development plans for the region, including those coming from Pima County, have “been all over the board.”
“When you don’t have a strategic plan, you say yes to the next guy that comes in the door because we want to have an opportunity to say, yes. That’s the shoot-at-anything-that-flies approach,” she said.
Instead, added Sharon Bronson, chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, these same economic plans, while tailored to entities, even large ones like Pima County, need to find a common ground for the overall economic good of the region to realize an organized and strategic direction.
“My hope as we begin to work in this next phase with Sun Corridor is if the County develops an economic development plan that is adopted and embraced by the Board of Supervisors, that it is a document that is in collaboration with Sun Corridor’s plans and the Pivot Playbook,” Bronson said. “I think that’s what tells us what our direction and our goal is.”
The Pivot Playbook was published last summer with five broad focus areas that were gleaned as priorities based on sources such as site selectors, opinion leaders and business experts. Specific initiatives were discussed and suggested, and various aspects of the plan are being implemented.
Most pressing, is getting the region’s hands on the aforementioned billions of federal infrastructure dollars to begin making an immediate impact not only for the benefit of those already here, but to attract new business, new employees and new resources.
Snell said it’s no secret that Tucson must focus on its infrastructure, most notably its roads with stronger efforts by the various government entities. Millions and millions of dollars in funding through the Regional Transportation Authority, and state, county and municipal government have been a start, but there is a long way to go.
The 2014 arrival of the streetcar, the widening of Grant Road and current widening of Broadway and some improvements on Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix have been visible and needed. But site selectors continue to tell Tucson it has to get moving on its infrastructure to be competitive for attracting businesses.
“The streetcar was a start,” said Snell, who arrived in Tucson in 2005 to lead Sun Corridor Inc. “The roads are the next focus. We’re going to have to put some real money into this.”
But that’s only a piece of what the region wants and needs for its economic future. Companies like Raytheon, World View and Bombardier are the foundation of an aerospace, space and defense industry that is growing as an economic anchor for the region. Caterpillar is attracting other mining companies for a sector that has been critical to the region for decades.
And UArizona with its highly regarded science and engineering colleges is breeding new and innovative businesses with help from UArizona’s business incubator Tech Launch Arizona and Tech Parks Arizona.
When Dr. Robert C. Robbins arrived five years ago, he had missed most of the economic development dysfunction. Caterpillar was already here. Tech Launch Arizona had already begun its work. His vision is to help continue to build what was developing when he got here, although he acknowledges that the university was not always engaged in the overall economic development of the region.
“I think (economic development) obviously is always embedded in the mission of any land-grant university,” Robbins said. “I think people were aware, but I don’t know that my predecessors embraced that part because this is a big, complicated job.”
Crediting previous UArizona President Ann Weaver Hart with the decision to start Tech Launch Arizona – “That has been a game changer,” he said − Robbins added that he sensed that economic development had established a more prominent position on UArizona’s radar by the time he got here.
“There was a solid what I would call entrepreneurial innovation ecosystem here,” Robbins said. “It obviously wasn’t as developed as Boston or the Bay Area, and it was lagging behind maybe Boulder, Denver and Austin.
“I think that I certainly have embraced it. I think that it’s an incredible opportunity for the university and it is part of our mission to develop the region for new companies and new job opportunities, and to help the economy of Southern Arizona, but also to give our students opportunities to stay here.”
Robbins is more specific than most when discussing a potential economic direction for the region.
“If we are betting on the future, I would probably put most of my chips on quantum networking and quantum computing,” he said. “I think we potentially could leapfrog both of them (Boulder and Austin) if we went all in on the quantum side of things.
“It’s probably going to take another two decades to realize this, but why not start setting the foundation for building out new companies around quantum computing and quantum networking? It’s going to be like the internet, it’s just going be faster, more efficient and less expensive. There are going to be tremendous opportunities.”
Whether it’s quantum computing or some other high-tech industry, one thing is certain, Snell said. The region has to continue on its recent path of collaboration, reaching back, if appropriate, for some of the great ideas of the past that can help generate a prosperous future.
Snell said he thinks back to that first of the economic blueprints, put together in 2007, to establish a baseline for the economic direction of Tucson. It was more about vision and coming together and light on specific initiatives, Snell said. But overall, the blueprint remains valid today. The blueprint specifically identified four industry clusters − the best fit the makeup of the economic community.
“I think we should look at that original blueprint that was a framework,” he said. “I saw the government doing what the private sector should be doing, and the education sector doing what the government should be doing. That was really a way to reframe that, to say, ‘University you do this, city and county do this, private sector do this.’
“We went through a pretty exhaustive analysis to target that we can win with. And then the third element of it, which was really maybe the most important, was to create a sense of direction for us.”
It was already happening pre-COVID, Lovallo said. It’s now a matter of continuing the momentum.
“We were together and going strong before COVID,” Lovallo said. “Pima County showed great leadership to get us ahead in COVID. We have all kinds of assets. We just have to execute better and set goals. There are a lot more good guys than bad guys.”
“We know we are stronger when we work together,” said Sun Corridor Inc. Chair Judy Rich. “The pandemic really brought this to light. With the Pivot Playbook, it’s been heartening to see elected officials and private-sector leadership come together to set a post-pandemic vision and action plan.