Thursday, May 07, 2015

A Tale Of Two Cities: ABQ And Tucson; What Went Right There And Wrong Here 

The woes of ABQ have been well chronicled here in recent years, including the failure of the state and city to adequately invest in itself in the wake of the economic crash. Sometimes it takes a set of outside eyes to open ours. In an incisive letter reader Kathryn Carroll of Tucson tells the tale of two cities—how one advanced and one was left behind . . . .

Joe, your recent column outlining how the decay of the iconic Tingley Coliseum was brought about by inexcusable neglect and shortsightedness due to a void in city and state leadership brought to mind an earlier era. I recalled when Albuquerque was the "go to city" other municipalities wanted to replicate for progressive rebirth, development and job creation.

It was 2009, a year following the collapse of Wall Street, but Albuquerque was still on the upswing, boasting revitalization of the downtown and job creation with massive developments such as Mesa Del Sol and the selection of Albuquerque over Tucson by Schott Solar for a 200,000 square foot facility to manufacture their solar panels.  The future of the city couldn't have been brighter, or so they boasted.

From this success, there were lessons to be learned and Tucson, struggling with slow job growth and numerous failures in attempting to rejuvenate its downtown, wanted to learn first hand how Albuquerque had been so successful in developing a private/public partnership.

In October 2009, the Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities (TREO) investors sponsored a three-day "Leadership Exchange Trip" to Albuquerque and Santa Fe for 40-plus elected officials and civic leaders to see first hand how the successes of this comparable-sized city were achieved.  The irony is the trip occurred just days after Mayor Chavez lost his re-election bid to current Mayor RJ Berry.

The local newspaper even paid for a reporter to go along so that details of the trip could be recorded in hopes of bringing encouragement back to the weary taxpayers of Tucson and Pima County. Now fast forward to 2015.

While Albuquerque has experienced job losses, population decline, development stagnation and a steep increase in violent crime, Tucson has flourished since that 2009 trip. Today downtown Tucson is thriving with new restaurants, new upscale housing developments, University of Arizona student housing complexes, an expansion and renovation of the convention center and a theater that attracts capacity crowds.  The newly completed streetcar that traverses the downtown area has brought new life and business to these venues and has exceeded ridership expectations. Two new and much needed national hotels have received approval to serve the convention center area.  In short, in the last three years huge and exciting changes have come to downtown Tucson by way of over $320-million in public and private investment. That also includes the nine-story corporate headquarters for UniSource Energy, the parent company of Tucson Electric Power and completion of the multi-story Pima County Court building.

It's not just the restaurants, entertainment and hotel rooms that are contributing to the growth of Tucson and Pima County.  In January, the Board of Regents finalized and approved the merger of all University Medical Center facilities with Phoenix-based Banner Health Care, the largest healthcare provider in Arizona.  In announcing the merger, Banner announced a $500-million capital injection for renovation and expansion of the existing Medical Center which will include a new seven-story tower.  Over the next few years, the merger and expansion is anticipated to create hundreds of new jobs as construction begins and new healthcare services are provided.

In January, HomeGoods, a division of the TJX Companies which includes Marshall's and T. J. Maxx, announced that Tucson was chosen to become the site of their new $80-million West Coast distribution center.  Besides Tucson, HomeGoods considered New Mexico, California and Nevada to build their new 800,000 square foot distribution center, It’s expected to create 400 new jobs upon completion and approximately 900 long-term.  As of February, the 100 acres needed to construct the facility had already been purchased and construction is scheduled to be completed this year.

This is only a small fraction of what's happening in this exciting area.  While I always dreamed of moving to beautiful New Mexico, I’m glad we stayed in Tucson.  Last April, we stopped in Albuquerque for a couple of days and were extremely disheartened by what appeared to be a major decline of the city we once loved to visit.  Many areas, including the Northeast Heights, appeared neglected, unkempt, and dirty.

The roles have reversed since 2009. Perhaps the elected officials and civic leaders of Albuquerque and New Mexico should now consider making a trip to Tucson to see the results of what Tucson's leadership may have learned on that three-day trip in October, 2009, just prior to the "changing of the guard" in City Hall and a year later in the Roundhouse.  What a difference five years makes in two cities which once shared ideas for economic success.

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