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What the Devil won't tell you

Wooing Amazon not the answer to Tucson's economic troubles

Strong Start Tucson may provide model for home-grown success

Still with Amazon?

Pima County and Sun Corridor Inc. have put together a proposal to win the sweepstakes of bringing Jeff Bezos' startup to a 120-acre parcel along Interstate 10. This is after Tucson's economic development brain trust planned to ship a living, breathing saguaro to Seattle in the hopes of getting Amazon site selectors' attention.

It worked. They noticed enough to tell us not to send it their way.

Let's be clear: Tucson landing the Great White Dot Com right here in the Old Pueblo isn't just a long shot. It's only possible in the way that anything is possible in the absence of the impossible. I can't prove Tucson can't entice Amazon's 50,000 jobs right here along Interstate 10 any more than I can prove Bud Foster won't marry Mila Kunis by the end of the year. The San Francisco 49ers are 0-8 and still not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They stand a better chance of winning the Super Bowl — probably by a factor of 10 — than Tucson does of bringing Amazon here.

What's the harm in trying? On the one hand, there is no harm in trying. On the other hand, it's bad juju.

The stab in the pitch-black mirrors the retirement strategy of hoping you'll win the Powerball. We feel like we're doing something but we really aren't.

As the city election nears a close, it's maybe time to think about the big issues facing Tucson and how to tackle them.

For years, Tucson has bought into a kind of divine intervention notion of our economic future. Some big green giant of a company will drop tens of thousands of jobs paying twice the median wage right here in our city limits and then we'll all be rich.

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The strategy seemed to be working just a couple years ago. The Tucson area had a spate of successful recruitment trophies and the housing market was recovering. Then came a series of jobs reports showing the community continuing to flag.

Tucson has problems that need to be addressed in terms of our economic prospects. We got a shaky airport, a low-skilled work force and a growing affordable housing crisis. Tucson's service/retail sector is under threat of, well, Amazon, not to put to fine a point on it. Arizona also has as state Constitution that forbids direct payments to businesses. Tucson's high unemployment rate may cut both ways in economic development terms because we have a lot of idle workers that companies like but yields a weak economy businesses don't.

Look, I'm not a site selector, economist or business recruiter but, like anyone else, I can see the results. There's a recovery going on everywhere but here. Why is that?

We need a concerted effort to improve on our fundamentals and more importantly, Tucson must take the approach that the community will save itself on the off, off, off chance that Bezos, Mark Zuckerburg or the Google Boys won't do it for us.

There's good news. We're seeing some "green chutes" in terms of self-reliance and community initiative. Strong Start Tucson may not pass but it's the sort of self-starter approach that may show the way forward as we tackle our economic challenges. Being supplicants to megacorporations like Amazon isn't the fix.

How about a Strong Now

Strong Start Tucson is on the ballot this year and the measure, in my assessment, is too vague to warrant approval. But I like the get up and go. Tucson and Arizona have problems with education forced on us by a Legislature that considers public education to be "government schools." So education leaders got creative and looked for ways to improve educational outcomes ourselves with Prop. 204.

Good work with that.

Early education is important, sure, but the under-reported crisis in Pima County's education is that the state has stopped financial support for Pima Community College.

Pima Community College received $20 million per year in state funding prior to the recession and that figure shrunk and shrunk down to $6.5 million in fiscal year 2015 before being eliminated entirely.

In the upskill-or-die environment, this may be where the investment is better placed. Prop. 204's $50 million a year aimed at preschoolers may be better spent on giving those toddler's parents better skills to fit the economic changes sweeping across the global landscape. Improve mom and dad's prospects and junior's outlook gets a whole lot brighter.

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I know. I know. Pima has had all sorts of problems during the past decade, being just recently taken off triple-secret probation by national accreditation. Punishing the institution is one thing. Using the administrative blunders as an excuse to ignore role or population the institution serves is both silly and stupid.

Strong oversight by local business and government would be required to make sure the money is well spent but investing in our current work force would take us further faster than early ed (also important but we gotta prioritize).

Learning to fly

Look down at South Tucson Boulevard and East Valencia Way, and we see something similar happening.

Tucson business leaders are, in fact, looking for ways to improve air service. The Arizona Daily Star's David Wichner did a bang-up job explaining it in one of those in-depth stories that don't get nearly as much attention as a quick hit about dogs trying to play poker or International Doughnut Day.

Businesses are coming together and ponying up cash to subsidize the cost of service here. Non-stop service to New York went wheels up this year and so did our flight to Mexico, which kind of takes the "I" out of TIA.

Airport managers themselves are trying to keep landing prices low and have done what they can to spruce up the joint. Tucson's enplanements are topping 250,000 year and that's up year-over-year but it's not where it was in back in 2013.

But the problem that lead to Tucson losing its service to Gotham paints a bigger picture. The local air market travel is so price sensitive that even a $20 premium charged for non-stop service made that flight un-competitive against those forcing passengers to wrangle their way through O'Hare.

I would think a Bangladeshi sweatshop worker would toil another six months to save up the price of a $20 premium just to skip the modern incarnation of a "layover." What that little truth tells us is that Tucson's wage earners are just feeling too squeezed to sustain an economy from within.

Is that what's keeping builders from expanding our housing stock?

Consumers squeezed

Before the recession, there were thousands of homes ready for permitting in already approved developments. Rocking K Ranch alone has thousands of homes on paper.

Something is keeping the market down, which would be a big injection to Tucson's economy in two ways. It would create construction jobs that would ripple some throughout the economy and it would ease inflationary pressures on rent.

Rent prices are up about 7 percent this year and unless renter's incomes increase by the same amount (ha, ha, ha) they have less to spend on all other things in the economy. Property owners do great. Everyone else is competing for a smaller piece of the aggregated pie.

Tucson's rents are nothing compared to other parts of the country but affordability is based on wages.

Deal makers need help

Don't we have an economic development team that's supposed to do this job? Tucson does and does not.

Economic development efforts have morphed into a series of exercises in long-term thinking and short-term headlines. What was once a Tucson-based economic development program, became a community-wide organization named GTEC (Greater Tucson Economic Council), which grew into TREO (Tucson Regional Economic Office) and is now Sun Corridor Inc., eager to create a mega region that stretches from Casa Grande down into northern Mexico. Sun Corridor is in Queen Creek, which is Maricopa County, which is odd. In the past they've boasted about infrastructure improvements in Mexico as part of their mega-regional initiative.

According to Sun Corridor's website, the organization has received investment promises from new and existing businesses that 6,200 jobs will be added here, per those businesses plans. Three-quarters of those gigs are slated for Raytheon Missile Systems and Lucid Motors in Casa Grande.

I'm not going to bitch about them, though lord knows they know how to manage and push back expectations. The Sun Corridor staff's job is to work the deal but they are stuck with what they got. Tucson has outsourced its economic future to this vendor. No vendor has ever told a client "well, maybe your problem is you" and survived for long.

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Tucson's efforts to splash Amazon's name across local news leave the impression that we are just that one big score away from securing our economic destiny. We're looking for a high-profile Hail Mary rather than working on our own home-grown innovations. There's something both feudal and futile about this.

Tucson's economic challenges require Tucson solutions, through a coordinated effort from business, government and whatever squeaky wheel wants to bring about revolution.

The community can dally about waiting for the big score or we can start to work on ourselves.

My dad used to tell me try to hit doubles because that means you have a good swing. The home runs will come and you'll wind up on base a lot. Tucson could use some more Gary Morlock horse sense.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who has spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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courtesy Luke Knipe

A saguaro offered to Amazon sits on the back of a truck in Tucson.


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