Why is Tucson’s economy second rate compared to Phoenix?

There are many theories as to why Tucson’s economy is second rate compared to Phoenix.

How do you make $8,500 more a year? Move to Phoenix

One popular explanation is that Tucson and Pima County’s government have been run by Democrats for years.

I don’t think that goes far enough in getting at the root of the problem.

Having been involved with water issues, land development issues, and economic development in the area for nearly 40 years, here are my observations:

Fear. Fear drives virtually all decision in the region. Fear of change. Fear of consequences. Fear of negative environment impacts. Fear of neighborhood opposition. Tucson is a “can’t do” town.

In business parlance, Tucson means ‘can’t do’

Excessive uncoordinated bureacracy: Trying to get anything done in Tucson or Pima County is really really hard. Both government, but especially the city of Tucson, have vast bureaucracies that are not coordinated centrally. Thus a simple thing like opening up a new business can get you into a world of hurt when the city’s building inspectors decide you will not get a “certificate of occupancy” in an existing building for your new business unless you make thousandsof dollars in improvements to the buiding.

Trying to navigate through the bureaucratic maze is virtually impossible for most people.

The horror stories about trying to start a business in Tucson are legion.

No venture capital: In most ommunities with a major research univertsity, they have served as a main engine for economic deveopment spinning off new companies. But in Tucson there is no venture capital sources to back new companies in their initial development stages.

Competing towns: A mjor difference between Pima and Maricopa counties is there are a lot more cities and towns around Phoenix than down here. When someone is thinking about locating a major industry in Maricopa, if Scottsdale says “no way”  Chandler is saying “when do you want to open”. The emergence of Marana, Oro Valley and Sahuarita as competitors to Tucson is a good thing for our future. We need more towns so if Tucson says no (like they did to General Instruments) or Pima says no (like they did to Motorola) Marana or another town can say “come on down”.

Business leadership lacking: Make a list of Tucson area business leaders. Compare them to business leaders in Maricopa County. You will see a vast ddifference in the vision, experience and financial resources between the two groups. Tucson’s growth and development has been dominated by car dealers and homebuilders.

The business leadership gap in Tucson is very wide-ranging. Business groups like the Tucson Chamber mostly focus on little stuff, and there is a lot of in-fighting between various of the Tucson area business organizations.

No political visionary: The last mayor of Tucson that really pushed for major stuff was Lew Murphy back in the 1970’s.  The mayor’s job is to lead the community forward and be the “deal maker” to work between all the various facvtions to move the place forward. Tucson’s current mayor is a great cheer leader, but he can’t step in between all the fations that fight in the community to get a deal made. None of the candidates for Mayor that have popped up so far even come close to the visionary leadership the community needs.

As a region we have an enormous talent pool of people who want to improve our economy, create more jobs, and enhance the quality of life in the area. But there is so much conflict in the region over whether or not we should do something that nothing gets done in the end.

Other commentaries: 
Report argues Tucsonans value scenery more than their paychecks
Tucson needs to change attitude and attract foreign investment
Environmentalists’ tact: Do what you want, just not on my planet


About Hugh Holub

Attorney and writer.
This entry was posted in economy, tucson politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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