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Builder’s tribute

Citizen Staff Writer



Whimsy drives John Wesley Miller’s life.

In September, he decided to move from his mid-town office to the back of the empty former McLellan building downtown. About 75 feet of vacant space set his office apart from the sidewalk-side windows.

Miller has built solar-powered homes around Tucson since 1973, long before alternative energy sources became popular. He figured he could build an entire downtown development in which solar panels largely powered the houses.

The resulting Armory Park Del Sol development has 88 families living downtown along South Third Avenue in Miller homes on what was undeveloped land in 2001.

Last fall, producers of the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” television show approached Miller to build a house for the show, but “I said I’m too busy,” Miller said. “Three hours later I said, ‘Absolutely, I’ll do it.’ ”

He will honor the 1,500 people who volunteered to demolish and build the home for the John and Kathy Bell family with a live transmission of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” at the Fox Theatre when the show airs at 7 p.m. Sunday. Miller was won over by the story of 14-year-old Lizzie Bell, who doesn’t let her rare Diamond Blackfan anemia stop her from being a blood donor activist.

Miller, 75, has made a life of setting his own agenda.

Today, the top of his agenda is finding tenants for the 27,000-square-foot McLellan Building, which has sat vacant at Congress Street and Scott Avenue since 1990. Miller bought it in December 2005 for $1.3 million when the rest of the local business world largely did – and still does – steer clear of downtown.

“My view of success is you get a vision or concept and you commit to it,” Miller said, sitting behind the 10-foot-wide conference table made of recycled planks that serves as his desk. “If you truly make a commitment, you become passionate about it. That’s what allows you to be successful.”

Miller moved from an office on Craycroft Road.

“I didn’t give up anything by moving here,” he said. “I gained in all aspects. If I want to walk to the city, the county (offices), El Minuto Cafe, El Charro CafĂ©, I’m there in a few minutes. I love being able to walk around downtown because it’s what I did as a kid.”

Despite brimming optimism, Miller hasn’t filled much of McLellan in three years, and a year ago he put up signs to sell the 1947 structure. Now, he’s leaning toward leasing space and he said he’s in talks with four potential tenants that could land a restaurant or lounge in the next two months.

He said having his office in the building sparked interest.

“It’s fun to bring people in through a warehouse and you have a nice office that could be in a deluxe building,” Miller said. “We’re already seeing people interested in being ahead of the curve (for downtown revitalization).”

The On a Roll sushi restaurant opened in September at the western edge of Miller’s building.

“On a Roll is so successful in the evening time,” Miller said. “My view was build it in a quality manner, have good food and good service and you will succeed. The market is here.”

On a Roll owner Dominic Moreno confirmed the restaurant is performing ahead of his business plan.

“When I first met John, you talk about who are true Tucsonans, he really defines that,” Moreno said. “You get that from the sense of commitment. He’s a true believer. He was always, always promoting our place. Always.”

This week Miller is focusing on the Fox Theatre, one block west of the McLellan building. The event is for as many of the 1,500 volunteers as he can get into the 1,200-seat theater.

Miller led seven construction crews to demolish and build a home for the Bell family near Craycroft and River roads within seven days, with television cameras running.

“If you can imagine ants on a candy bar, it was busier than that,” Miller said. “At one point, we were 15 hours behind, but we made that up in two days. When we put out calls, guys just started showing up.”

Miller muses about how a large house could be built in seven days, while downtown languishes year after year. He noted that Pima County building inspectors were constantly on hand to execute instant inspections.

“I think what we learned was there are three parts of a successful project: communication, collaboration and the one we usually forget about, cooperation,” Miller said, illustrating cooperation with how the Makeover team dealt with multiple crews wanting to work at the same spot at the same time. ” ‘If you need to get into that room in the next five minutes, I’ll go to another room.’ Everybody was on board. We can learn from them.”

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