First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
Job creation and economic development in Tucson (and many other cities) has historically revolved around a few well-worn strategies:
- offer tax breaks, free or cheap land, low taxes, and/or other economic incentives to lure businesses to our area;
- offer tax breaks, free or cheap land, low taxes, and/or other economic incentives to developers to build stuff;
- offer a new stadium with free or cheap rent and/or other economic incentives to lure spring training or other sports teams to our area;
- show pictures of cowboys and pretty sunsets and hope tourists will come;
- build a fancy convention hotel– on the taxpayers’ dime– to lure conventions to our area.
Luckily, the citizens stopped the fancy convention hotel plan last summer, but Tucson and Pima County have jumped on board and spent millions of dollars on these other strategies. And what have we got to show for it? A 23.4% poverty rate, high unemployment, a shrinking workforce, a rising home vacancy rate, home foreclosures in the thousands, and falling home values. Need I go on?
We need some new strategies. To this end Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) Tucson Chapter sponsored a panel discussion on job creation recently. Job Creation in Tucson: Building a Sustainable Future featured talks by Lisette DeMars of Local First Arizona, Melissa Black of the Green Chamber of Commerce, Joe Higgins of Arizona Small Business, and Jim Mize of Pima County employer outreach, plus local business owner Tim Carmichael of La Posada Solar Cogeneration Project.* Rep. Raul Grijalva was on hand to offer his perspective, and The Tucson Progressive gave an economic overview (above).
The focus of the evening was on growing and investing in local business– instead of throwing money and tax breaks to lure businesses here or offering Band-Aid solutions like cutting fees (which often lead to reduced governmental revenue and cuts in jobs and services).
Although the right-wing blog Tucson Choices dissed PDA’s local business focus and dismissed the group as a bunch of intellectuals– the Thinkers of Tucson (hey, thanks)– the evening was filled with creative ideas. Tucson Choices says that local politicians don’t have the time to come up with new ideas, so they listen to Tucson’s Thinkers. I hope they’re right.
To climb out of our current economic slump, Tucson needs to foster out-of-the-box ideas and invest in local innovation– rather than focus on being the low-wage call center capital of the country.
We have businesses that are born and raised in Tucson. They’re not going anywhere. Rather than chasing after the next IBM with tax breaks, the smart investment is to help local businesses grow by offering innovation grants. Instead of offering millions of dollars to lure a large company here, let’s take even 10% of that economic development money and fund local innovation. I’m not suggesting that we give Joe’s Machine Shop $5000 to move into a new building; I’m suggesting we give Joe $5000 – $50,000 to develop the next generation of electric motors. Now that’s business friendly.
In addition, Tucson economic development should play to our strengths. We have a research university and one of the country’s top hospitals– right here in the middle of town. The city should work with the UA and enable increased technology transfer. Research has shown that growing “eds and meds” does foster economic development, provides good-paying jobs, and is a better investment than convention hotels or sports teams.
The entire PDA event can be found on my You Tube channel.
* By the way, PDA invited TREO to join in the panel discussion, but they declined.