Now Reading
Call center cheers show Council sloth on economy

From the archive: This story is more than 5 years old.

What the Devil won't tell you

Call center cheers show Council sloth on economy

City leaders need to bare teeth on TREO, economic development

"The new telephone books are here. The new telephone books are here!" Steve Martin danced to the news in his classic 1970s popcorn flick "The Jerk." Then he plopped the book down. Scanned for and found his name, Navin Johnson, and looked into the camera, excited to tell us "Things are going to start happening to me now!"

Of course, that was the point, right? It was funny because — dude, it's just a phone book. That's the joke.

"The new call center jobs are here! The new call center jobs are here!" And absolutely nothing is going to start happening to Tucson now.

In part of my keeping-em-honest spiel with the local media, I have to completely agree with and totally call bullshit on my old friend Tim Steller on this point. He said the Comcast's coming call center creating 1,000 jobs at wages below Tucson's cellar-dwelling median income is good news. True, he seemed to be wearing a surgical mask and holding the news with a pair of tongs, but the gist was that too many people are out of work and looking for jobs. Tucson's umpteenth call center will help, he said. It is not a "stab-the-fatted-calf" moment of jubilation — but feel free to raise a locally brewed amber in toast — for like a two seconds.

Tucson, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is the fifth-poorest of the 34 largest cities in the country, because 34.8 percent of Tucsonans earn less than $25,000 a year. Oh, it gets worse. Good jobs are typically found in big cities. None of the country's major metropolitan areas with a higher poverty rate are below Tucson's median income of $36,758, which ranks 169 nationally. Would you like some fries with that crapburger?

So the call center jobs look pretty good.

Sometimes in life, analogies work. Let's get ourselves smarter and use physics. It's called translation versus rotation and it's really simple. The space shuttle, when we had one, flew its missions on an orbital path that resembled a sine curve — a slow steady wave. As the Atlantis traveled along that path at 17,500 miles per hour, it was translating along its course. When someone needed to point the shuttle's nose in the other direction (remember it's space and this works), they could do that and the ship would change where the windows pointed but keep translating. Moving the nose was rotation.

Without some major force acting on the shuttle, it would keep translating along it's path even as it rotated about it's course to look for shit ("Oooh, the Great Wall of China!").

A case of the slows

From a rotational perspective, the call center jobs are great but our translation — the course we continue on — simply sucks. The real news about Comcast is that the news shouldn't be good. Tucson has been in the economic development business to provide that forceful change of orbit — but to no avail. How do we remain so stuck?

I'll tell you how: A stunning, staggering lack of urgency from Tucson's leaders. Tucson, friends, has a case of the slows.

I'll even give you an example. Tucson took one year longer to build the four-mile Aviation Parkway than the country took to map, design, scope and build 40,000 miles of the U.S. Interstate Highway System. I don't even have to mention that "New River" development approved for Downtown back in 1999.

Never let it be said that I am not a religious man. I too have a deity I look to for guidance and wisdom. John Elway. The Hall of Fame quarterback and Denver Broncos' current top dog fired the team's coach after going 38-10 over three regular seasons, in part because Elway was pissed the Broncos exited the playoffs absent "kicking and screaming."

Tucson remains stuck and no one in city leadership seems to be kicking and screaming. That is the problem. Tucson goes 10-38 with a sense of decorum.

I know the Tucson City Council members personally and they are good people whose hearts are in the right place. It's just that their hearts are in the right places as they move in six different directions at the same time. Little evidence suggests a strong force will act on Tucson's trajectory so long as they hold Tucson like an egg — gently — so they don't break it. Urgency doesn't pervade them until a wheel squeaks, then they urgently reach for the 3-in-1 to make everything gentle again.

Tucson is many great things but urgent so, soo, sooo isn't one of them, unless it is protecting itself from things in Tucson it doesn't like. The homeless? Eyesores. Make those jets overhead go away from the house I bought on the landing route. Glee is on and I can't hear it. Arrest those college kids for having a party near my new house a block from campus. A McDonald's at an abandoned gas station? Hell no!

The prevailing idea is that "the Tucson" we moved to is a status quo that's good enough. So, we are the fifth poorest city in the country and the only metro area bigger than Tucson's that makes less money is New Orleans — a city suffering from not one but two cataclysms in 10 years.

The Council projects the sense that those lousy numbers are an "issue to be studied and addressed thoughtfully," rather than a dire financial truth to be met on the field of battle. Tucson last tried to provide that major force to change our economic trajectory 10 years ago. 

In 2005, the Greater Tucson Economic Council stopped serving the area's economic development efforts, in part because the city had grown fed up with results so bad that we could only brag about call centers.

GTEC (GEE-tech) was rebranded and rechristened the Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, which set about re-imagining Tucson's economic development plan. Immediately, Tucson got to work on a plan for economic development. No, actually, they got about making a plan to make a plan that could inspire a plan on economic development. It took two years.

Here's what Tucson Citizen reporter Teya Vitu wrote about it back in April 2007:

Tucson tapped 6,000 people for input, assembled a 47-person steering committee of civic leaders and invested $250,000 of Tucson Electric Power cash to draw up "Securing Our Future Now: An Economic Blueprint for the Tucson Region." 

The time, money and effort revealed the city values "high-skilled/high-wage jobs, livable communities, urban renaissance, collaborative governance and stewardship and education."

Oh mother of Christ, seriously? Dudes, you could have gone to The Buffet Bar and Crockpot on any given Wednesday afternoon, and a guy named Bob would have told you that for the price of a jumbo and a hot dog.

Tucson seemed to agree at the time.

"All I can see is a disco ball. But how are you going to make the disco ball turn?" asked (Deitrich) Benjamin, who owns Stand Firm Personal Training and is on the board of the Tucson Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered Chamber of Commerce. "There were no solutions. There was a lot of repeat performance here. That was the gist of a lot of the conversation (following the blueprint presentation)."

Not only did TREO just make a disco ball, TREO made a disco ball the GLBT community was unimpressed with because small business owners care about the bottom line. Those who looked past the dazzle reached the same conclusion.

A rough start but surely things would improve, right? In 2011, the Daily Star's Josh Brodeskey found out that TREO in fact did create some great jobs in Tucson, if you count working for TREO. Turns out being the president and CEO of TREO pays rather well, because Joe Snell was making $310,000 (I shit you not) per year doing just that. Tucson is pissed about H.T. Sanchez making more than $200,000 to run TUSD. Snell oversees a staff of six.

No, it's fine, as he told Brodesky, in a column where he just had to let Snell talk.

"The private sector is a great validation of whether you do a great job or not because they only vote with their money," he said. "And we are doing very well in the private sector."


That was my jaw falling on my keyboard. Excuse me, I have to put it back on ... be right back ...

Mr. Snell, are you suggesting that you hit performance benchmarks as Tucson was swimming in high-skill jobs at high wages in a more livable community amid an urban renaissance between 2005 and 2011? Or did you wait until the blue print was ready in 2007 to start. Or has another corporate board overpaid another CEO in these United States of America? Or are you that much fun to drink with after a day of golfing that the old boys just set you up?

According to TREO's website it has in 10 years successfully landed or expanded 69 businesses, creating directly or indirectly nearly 20,000 jobs. Sounds great, right? Well, let's compare TREO to what it replaced in the Greater Tucson Economic Council. In the first six years of GTEC's life it attracted 72 business. In one year alone — fiscal year 1994 — it generated 6,000 jobs by bringing in 24 companies.

Then in 2012, a big story broke involving TREO. Finally, right? Well, maybe not. The group liked to take field trips and one of these junkets was to San Diego. On this trip a Tucson City Council member finally made headlines relating to economic development, if one were to count Paul Cunningham getting himself shitfaced and in the aftermath, forcing all Council offices to go through sexual harassment sensitivity training. Well ... I guess that's one way to get the "City Council," "TREO" and "accountability" into the same sentence.

Tucson Citizen editor Mark Evans, writing for the on-line product post Citizen fall (RIP, comrades) put it about as bluntly as it could be put in his call for a broad reassessment of whether TREO was doing the job for Tucson:

"So, what has TREO done for the region, other than organize hootenannies in far-away cities? If you’re looking for the jewel-in-the-crown relocated manufacturer that has provided thousands of jobs, stop looking. Hasn’t happened."

He did point out that TREO organizes regional and demographic information for site selectors and other non-glamorous things that can only be expected to be done by a guy making $300,000 per year leading. Question: How do I bid that job for $200,000 per year?

TREO dumps 'Tucson'

Shortly after, TREO decided to short-circuit  taxpayer accountability. It would forego all city and all county funding. Ordinarily this might be good news. A public sector entity becoming fully reliant on private funding is the sort of thing that we want right? True, but now that taxpayers are off the hook for TREO, TREO is no longer accountable to Tucson. Put it another way: Tucson no longer has any say over economic development efforts done on its behalf.

The full story of course is that Mayor Jonathan Rothschild sits on the TREO board with 49 others. So Tucson voters have as many votes on the TREO board as Arizona State University. Don't worry, Raytheon Missile Systems has two.

Then last month, TREO dropped a second bomb — the big one — on Tucson, when it dropped Tucson from its name because it was now a private venture firm toiling in the work of junkets and data collection. TREO officials announced in May that it would now be called Sun Corridor. The name change came with a press release, you really have to read to believe. Turns out we're a megaregion all set to achieve certain synergies with opportunities in competitive near shoring bi-nationally. That's just in a single display of bullet points.

Note to reporters everywhere: If your bullshit meter doesn't go off when you read "Southern Arizona will benefit from ... greater synergy in the new economy post recession," you are standing in it up to your thigh.

The press release also mentioned briefly, casually, in y'know passing, that TREO has already been busily working to help Sierra Vista and Pinal County with their efforts and this move just formalizes that reality.

I'm sorry, what? Pinal County? Sierra Vista? Oh that's right, TREO doesn't report to Tucson voters anymore as Snell keeps walking up and down the field with the goal posts over his shoulders.

Tucson City Council. You represent a city where jobs suck and ... you let this happen?

It takes a certain kind of sloth to watch your economic development weapon do nothing for 10 years. Mayor and council, you let TREO escape! It got away! How ... the hell ... does that happen? In the history of business recruitment and retention efforts anywhere in the world, has an economic development organization ever run away from home? Has one ever relocated its efforts to Mexico? (insert 1,000 exclamation points here).

What's bad about this is that any new Tucson-centric start-up effort now is competing against the 50-headed hydra that is TREO banking our future on trade with Mexico. If Tucson goes full bore into economic development it may look like the right hand doesn't know what the 100 other hands on that mythical beast are doing, and vice versa.

Does Tucson or does Tucson not have an institution called the University of Arizona? I would argue "yes." That's 3,000 graduates every year in science, technology, engineering and math along with 1,500 grads from the Eller School flipping the tassel from one side to the other. None of them can come up with a better gamer console? What about other business in Tucson? Have you checked out Kickstarter?

Absolutely, technology transfer is hard work and a long grind and it's a lot harder than resetting expectations every few years, oh right. Sorry.

It looks for all the world, like TREO's prime directive is to protect their jobs by constantly pushing back Judgment Day by re-imagining their purpose and playing the expectations game like champs, as the City Council asks "well, what can we do about it?" Somewhere, Tucson's last ball-busting mayor, Lew Murphy, just decided to stay dead for another 50 years.

The new telephone books are here!

The new telephone books are here!

Break some eggs

TREO could Six Sigma my ass all day long with lies, damn lies and statistics about the bang-up job they are doing but Tucson's median income ranks 169th of all metro areas in America, with the fifth-highest poverty rate and we're still celebrating call centers as great news. Tucson jobs still suck.

Of course, I'm not saying tapping Mexico's economy is a bad idea (it's a bit disconcerting we've given up on our own country, but oh well). Mexico has been experiencing stable growth and more importantly, stable inflation. I am saying that when Mexico takes a header it takes a header so hard that if Tucson is too chained to it, we might just move 25 miles south when the chain goes taut as Mexico sinks.

I am asking that TREO maybe spend less time worrying about trade zones in Sierra Vista and Casa Grande and a bit more time taking an inventory of what Tucson needs to compete. If it's a better airport, bond for it. If it's a better-educated work force, figure out where to find and how to get $20 million for Pima Community College to train the work force and don't leave the room until you do it.

I'm saying that in Tucson, we've worried about not breaking the egg long enough. It's time to make a fucking omelette. Rothschild has the right idea to work with the University of Arizona to try to turn some of that annual $400 million in high-tech research into a single Fortune 500 company. He's got the right idea to work with the university on water delivery systems. He's got the right idea to team up with campus entrepreneurs to teach them how to go public in five years. (And if Mexico is such a smart place to focus on, TREO should post the picture of he Nogales mayor or Santa Cruz County representative because it doesn't look like you have either on your board).

What can the City Council do about it? Kick and scream. I'll throw in claw and scratch. Do it urgently.  

Tucson has never had a problem with the right ideas — from streamlining regulations to tapping the university — however, Tucson seems awfully fond of taking a couple of years assuring they are the right right ideas and then another one to study them.

We don't need no more studies

We don't need more community input. We don't need more stakeholders at the table. We need backroom deals and blood on the walls. We need crazy eyes and hair on fire. We need leaders "who look just crazy enough to do it," and a lot of us in Tucson are rapidly losing patience to particularly care what "it" is.

It's been more than 25 years of junkets, vision plans, brainstorming, re-purposing, re-imagining, fact-finding, study sessions, charter committees, call centers, sea aquariums, sky bridges, Thirfty Blocks, call centers, zoo expansions, aviation parkways, street cars, call centers ... and did I mention that one of those sea aquariums was supposed to feature marine life in the Sonoran Desert? Minnows!

One party has more or less been in charge during this time and those elected Council members had best pretty quickly coalesce around a colleague's great idea and say "How the hell do we get this done?!" rather than waiting for the Council to coalesce around theirs. When are we going to stop making excuses and stop re-visioning what any guy on any given Wednesday afternoon at the Buffet already knows? Facing reelection maybe Democrats should worry less about unsettling the apple cart and get to work coring.

Tucson has one of the five highest poverty rates and ranks 169th in median income.

Maybe Rothschild's plan works. Maybe it doesn't. It's time to move in one direction (without being a boy band) and stop with the other five. Maybe you live politically and maybe you die politically. At least you try. To paraphrase what Pussy Riot's Nadia Tolokonnikova said of rebels, leaders ask for the storm.

We have 25 years of catching up to do so if city leaders aren't indicted trying, they may not be trying hard enough.

A new call center is here. Unfortunately, everyone in Tucson has come to believe absolutely nothing happens now.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

— 30 —

Best in Internet Exploder