County unveils $230M economic development plan

By Patrick McNamara
August 26, 2011

When Raytheon Missile Systems, the region’s largest employer, decided in 2010 to open a new manufacturing facility at Huntsville, Ala., instead of Tucson, it raised the spectre: What if Raytheon left Tucson altogether?

To prevent that, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry has been laying the groundwork for a sweeping economic development and infrastructure improvement plan, much of it in response to the concerns that prompted Raytheon to bypass expansion in Tucson last year.

“We must redouble our efforts and develop new initiatives to promote job protection as well as creation,” Huckelberry wrote in an Aug. 18 memo to county supervisors.

Huckelberry provides a detailed overview of how the county and other regional entities could work to improve transportation infrastructure as a way to retain major employers like Raytheon and foster additional economic development.

He outlines a potential public investment in transportation infrastructure projects and property purchases totaling more than $230 million, which would likely be paid for through bonds that would have to be approved by voters.

Huckelberry links infrastructure projects with economic development and job creation, citing four past roadway projects that connected major job centers including IBM, Tucson International Airport and the University of Arizona. They included Kolb Road, Palo Verde Road, Aviation Parkway and Campbell Avenue/Kino Parkway.

“While direct cause and effect location decisions are difficult to prove, it is along these corridors that IBM located when they expanded (east of Kolb Road) and a large number of private employers expanded in the international airport environs,” Huckelberry wrote.

IBM began construction of its southeast side complex in 1977. In its heyday in the 1980s, the tech giant employed more than 5,500 people at the site. In the early 1990s, however, IBM cut back on its Tucson payroll.

IBM is still in Tucson with just under 2,000 employees at the site that is now known as the UA Science and Technology Park, which includes dozens of mostly start-up technology related business as well as some of Raytheon’s facilities.

Huckelberry, who was on vacation and unavailable for comment this week, explained in the memo what Huntsville did to attract and retain large-scale employers.

He notes a $150 million investment the city of Huntsville made in infrastructure projects at the 4,000-acre Cummings Research Park where more than 25,000 people work. A half-cent sales tax funded the work.

Much of what Huckelberry proposed aims to create a similar industrial complex around Tucson International Airport and Raytheon.

He suggests the county purchase 383 acres of private property south of Raytheon’s main facility near the airport to create a buffer around the company’s manufacturing center.

The land later could be used for a possible Raytheon expansion or to facilitate the growth of additional aerospace and defense companies.

The county has conducted appraisals of the properties and plans to present the supervisors with details about costs and possible acquisitions this fall, Huckelberry wrote, adding, “since I believe acquisition of the properties should not be delayed until a bond election.”

In February, Huckelberry presented the board of supervisors with a proposal to create an “Aerospace/Defense Corridor.”

The first step would be to purchase the properties around Raytheon’s complex, which Huckelberry estimated in February would cost $29.2 million.

In the memo, the county administrator identifies another estimated $201.6 million in transportation improvements.

Those potential projects include: extending Alvernon Way south to Old Vail Connection road, Old Vail Connection Road from Nogales Highway to Alvernon Way, Kolb Road south of Interstate 10 to Old Vail, improvements to Corona Road between Tucson Boulevard and Alvernon, improvements to Wilmot Road from I-10 to Old Vail and upgrades on Country Club Road from I-10 to a proposed new main entry to Tucson International Airport.

In the memo, Huckelberry notes that long-term transportation planning has called for the closure of Palo Verde Road access to I-10 and developing an interchange at Country Club.

“These developing transportation corridors provide critical infrastructure links between employment centers; connections to key transportation hubs such as TIA, and access to logistics functions such as the Port of Tucson,” Huckelberry wrote.

Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, which has been on-board with the county in developing the Aerospace/Defense Corridor concept, was supportive of the proposed infrastructure improvements.

“An efficient transportation system around employment centers can improve the productivity of the economy,” said TREO Vice President Laura Shaw in an email statement. “A good transportation system doesn’t guarantee economic development, but it can help create an environment that fosters economic growth.”

Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce President Mike Varney said he’s happy to see the county get serious about economic development.

“It’s always encouraging to see a highly placed leader pay attention to economic development,” Varney said.

But Varney said he thinks the county hasn’t spent enough effort looking at how it could improve the overall business climate.

“Development services are not necessarily known for their efficiency and business friendliness,” Varney said. “I didn’t see anything that says (Huckelberry’s) going to look inward to promote efficiencies and grow the economy.”

Contact the reporter at [email protected] or (520) 295-4259.

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