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Guest opinion

Morgan: Gov't must be an ally for effective economic development

As a candidate for House of Representatives in Congressional District 2, I rejoiced to see the recent announcement of Tucson-based Diamond Ventures Phase I development of their Rocking K Master-Planned Community in the foothills of the Rincons. This should be received as good news for Tucson, Pima County and all surrounding areas. It is another economic shot-in the arm for a region that has had a lot of recent negative economic news, especially when compared with our Phoenix metro neighbor to the north. This development project illustrates the necessity of private investment to spur economic growth, the need for government to facilitate this as an ally of good business decision-making. Sadly, from every level of government CD 2 has been marked by leadership wed more partisan ideology than to a vision for a prosperous future for the people who live here. I am running to help change all that.

Pima County has been mired in an economic malaise for over a decade now. Cochise County has seen little, and even negative growth in recent years as well. Several projects that will bring much needed economic development to both counties, the Rosemont copper mine, in Pima, and the Villages at Vigneto in Benson in Cochise, have been hindered by government at all levels, but have been actively opposed by Southern Arizona’s two current House representatives, Ann Kirkpatrick and Raul Grijalva.

For more than a decade, Rosemont has been trying to establish a copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, which when fully functioning, will become the third-largest copper mine in the United States with a projected $6.9 billion after-tax income in earnings over the course of its 21-year lifespan. According to Hudbay, the Canadian mining corporation who owns the mineral rights to the land, the mine would have created as many as 2,500 workers at peak construction. Add to these, an additional estimated 1,500 jobs that would be generated indirectly through spending by people working the construction jobs, and other factors, and the economic loss to the area by these delays is substantial, especially since these many of these jobs would be paying above the median household income of people in the area. After fighting legal battle after legal battle with environmental groups, the company won final approval for all necessary government permits and were set to break ground this year, only to have a judge rule against them on entirely novel grounds, in a controversial decision that is currently working its way through the appellate circuit.

Forgetting the unprecedented judicial ruling that has prevented Rosemont from moving forward, the mine has faced almost universal opposition from local political leaders at all levels. Congressman Raul Grijalva from neighboring congressional district CD 3 has been a vocal opponent since the beginning, as has current CD 2 Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. They have universally condemned the mine on environmental concerns of one type or the other, but the biggest of these, has been the complaint that the local groundwater aquifer could be either contaminated or depleted. Despite the mines proposed and approved plans to address both water use and water contamination concerns, the efforts to demonize them have proceeded unabated.

Not even all Republicans are on board with the mine. I personally spoken to constituents who don’t like the idea of a Canadian company mining Arizona copper and selling it to China, one of the many criticisms made against the mine by others as well. Yet, in a global economy such as ours, that is precisely what must happen. Such local isolationist mentality will never lead to economic development. This is where government must help educate the public, rather than being a naked partisan. Mining is, and remains a huge means of wealth creation for our state. Efforts to prevent it are not only damaging to local economies, but they hurt the development of our region into the future. Our earth’s minerals cannot just stay in the ground. They are to be used. Responsibly? Yes, but used nevertheless. An effective government leader would get as much input as possible, so that when development proceeded it was done with as much care as possible.

I got a chance to ask Rep. Kirkpatrick, who I am running to replace, why she opposed the mine. She told me it essentially came down to the water issue. Here again a better government plan would recognize that concerns over our groundwater are valid, but this is why, rather than preventing necessary economic development, and attainment of our natural resources, we must look at technology to stretch our limited water resources further. Our state is already losing water to California, and our region is losing water in-state to the Phoenix-metro area, despite the fact that we have more available groundwater resources than they do. Why? Because California and Phoenix are where the people are. Why are the people there? Because that is where the economic opportunities have been created by forward thinking alliances between government and industry. The only way we are going to get our region out of the poverty it is mired in, is to get our young people to stay here, and that only happens by creating jobs and industry here. We must give them a reason to stay. We must create opportunities to attract more private investment as well.

In Cochise County you have much the same problem as with Rosemont. When you look at the efforts to quash the Villages at Vigneto community development in Benson, you see more unnecessary attempts to fight all efforts at development in the name of saving nature. Once again, the claim has been made, by outside environmental groups, that the 28,000-home master-planned community project would place an unsustainable drain on the groundwater aquifers that feed the San Pedro River, and thus would create a massively negative impact on certain, native species. Of course, those claims have been challenged by El Dorado Holdings, Inc., the owner of the real estate that would be developed. The thing is, despite these claims, the project was on the road to approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, and had the support of the local county and municipal authorities, but hit a snag in the process, in Steve Spangle, former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In October, 2016, Spangle came to his conclusions on an environmental assessment that said local wildlife would be greatly impacted, and a further appraisal was needed, but the report was later changed before being released, after what some are saying was unethical, political pressure from the Trump administration. Here’s the thing, in correspondence between the Army Corps of Engineers and the developers, it is not altogether clear that the FWS approval was necessitated by law, and certainly, as Spangle himself said in explaining why he changed his official position after being asked to, his opinion was not the deciding factor.

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Whatever the reason for Spangle releasing his official opinion in October of 2017 stating that endangered species would not be harmed by the Benson project, the Army Corps of Engineers reinstated the Section 404 Clean Water Act permit so that the development project could proceed. The environmentalist groups have vowed a court fight. Predictably, Reps. Kirkpatrick and Grijalva have declared their opposition to the plan. Kirkpatrick told me that she supports economic development but has yet to offer a single thing to suggest what she is actually for, and how she would help bring it to pass. She has simply been against projects, often citing environmental concerns, namely those surrounding water.

The Villages at Vigneto will bring much needed the economic opportunity along with well-paying jobs to the Benson area. George Scott, who heads Benson-based Southeast Arizona Economic Development Group, estimates that $23.8 billion in economic output and 16,355 jobs will be a direct result of the project’s 18-year build out. In a county with a poverty rate nearly 33 percent higher than the national average and a corresponding dwindling population base, it is not hard to see what an incredible benefit this project would be to the area.

It is vital that we have government leaders who are committed to working with those proposing economic development ideas for our languishing region. If we want to win the water fight with Phoenix and California, we must have people here. Those people mean political muscle in the long-term. If we keep losing our population, because we thwart all efforts to bring development to the region, then we will ultimately lose the fight to keep our water here as well.

As someone who has spent his entire life in Tucson, I can assure you these issues matter to me deeply. I want to see more opportunities created here, not only for jobs, but real wealth creation. This is why I have created an economic development plan for CD 2. It involves leveraging our region’s designation as a national security defense hub, and reassigning some of the already granted federal dollars in partnership with our local institutes of learning to create a high-skilled workforce, that will be able to fill exist local jobs and attract other businesses in the high-tech, defense sector. This is education with a purpose. If we properly developed some of the existing tech and expanded its use here, like say in agriculture, we could help increase our water supply, by decreasing usage rates. We do not have to abandon growth to save our water.

Government should not be leading opposition to legitimate economic development and growth of our region, it must be an effective ally in advancing them. We must efficiently use our resources, both existing natural and economic, to create new opportunities and secure our future. Out of our necessity can come ingenuity, but we must allow it to thrive, and not strangle it with government regulation, inefficiency, and naked partisan ideology. With the right leadership, I believe our best days are ahead of us in Southern Arizona, and that is why I have stayed here. That is why I am running for Congress. I will be an ally to all those who want to create a better future for the people of CD 2.

Joseph Morgan is running in the 2020 Republican primary in CD 2.

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