Hurray for Councilman Paul Cunningham. Well, not for his randy, booze-induced proposition of a city staffer, but hurray because Propositiongate has focused the attention of the citizenry on Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities and whether public funding of the organization is paying off.
TREO arose in 2005 out of the ashes of GTEC, the economic development agency that was supposed to serve the region but mostly served as a sink for city and county money and a source of resentment for the suburban towns of Oro Valley, Marana and Sahuarita.
At the time, there were dozens of economic recruitment offices in the region, most funded by local industry but each city and town plus the county also had economic development offices that were spending millions to compete with each other.
The idea was to combine all those efforts, saving money through the economy of scale, and create a true private-public partnership that would recruit new businesses and industries to the region. But more than that, it would be transparent and develop yearly data to demonstrate its return on all that public-private investment, which was one of the main complaints about GTEC, money went in but nothing came out.
One of the first things TREO did was organize a road trip to Austin, Texas, where regional leaders there had created an economic wonder. They had so much fun that a couple of years later, Bob and Bing and Dorothy packed up the gang and headed out on the Road to Portland, Ore., another economic wonder of Tucson’s size. There were other trips, too, including one to Albuquerque.
The point of those trips was to drive home the value of regionalism – all the governments and industries pulling together to the benefit of all.
But apparently not having learned that lesson (cough, cough, Rio Nuevo, cough), another trip was organized to wonderful San Diego last month, though that trip had TREO watchers scratching their heads. Austin, Albuquerque and Portland made sense, (sort of) but San Diego is as big as Phoenix. And it has an ocean. What could the region’s economic and political leaders possibly learn about San Diego that could be imported to Tucson, other than San Diego is a swell place to visit in May (especially the swanky Torrey Pines golf resort where all the junketeers stayed and Cunningham got pie-eyed)?
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.
But TREO does do a lot of the little, unglamorous things that are vital for economic development, such as serving as a one-stop resource of data and demographics for prospective relocators.
The economy-of-scale reasoning that created TREO seven years ago is still sound, but now Tucson City Manager Richard Miranda has resurrected a city economic development office. Some of that is out of frustration with TREO and seeming lack of return on the city’s investment.
But the city will have no more luck developing the city’s economy than TREO has because the city’s and region’s liabilities (cruddy transportation network, cruddy convention center, cruddy schools, inadequate airport, lack of major cultural and entertainment attractions) outweigh its benefits and until the city, county and other regional governments finally learn to solve the region’s problems together, TREO will continue to be criticized for its small victories and for taking leaders on trips to swell cities that have figured out how regionalism works in hopes the idea finally sinks in.
So here’s to you Paul Cunningham, you haplessly put the focus on TREO and whether it’s working as intended. Before the city puts us back on the road to the bad old days of multiple, competing and wasteful economic development offices, maybe it’s time to reassess TREO, how it’s funded and whether it’s working as intended and then make any needed improvements.