For more than 50 years, Willie Blake lamented that he had to leave his own neighborhood to buy his groceries.

The head of the Western Hills Neighborhood Association, on South Park Avenue, near Interstate 10, also worried about the area’s youngsters and the lack of activities for them.

When Blake, the business representative for Teamsters Union Local 104, retired in 2000, he joined the Kino Weed & Seed Project, an effort to rid the neighborhood of crime and identify economic opportunities.

Across the street from his neighborhood sat a vacant parcel of land that stretched from Park Avenue to Kino Boulevard and 36th Street to I-10. Development projects on the parcel had been proposed and failed time after time.

“The property was an eyesore,” Blake said. “We had to do something.”

The magnitude of what that something would be was beyond his wildest dreams.

NO ONE WOULD BUILD

An economic development study prepared for the city of Tucson in 2003 painted a modestly hopeful picture of possibilities for the south-side neighborhoods.

“While the market will support a small amount (of) retail development in the South Park neighborhoods, existing demographics place severe limitations on the likelihood of any successful national chain recruitment,” the South Park Hope Study said. “Locally owned chains and the cultivation of area entrepreneurship efforts are the recommended courses of action in the immediate term.”

Known as the “Little America” site because of a failed effort to build a Little America Resort there, the pad was the largest undeveloped site in the Tucson core.

Its location on the I-10 frontage was minutes away from the airport, the University of Arizona and downtown, and there was minimal retail competition.

But, hampering enthusiasm was the small population base and low household incomes.

“The tradition in South Park seems to have been to make your money and move out as soon as you can,” the Hope report said.

Then-owner Sinclair Oil indicated no plans to improve the land.

“Despite a traditionally harsh perception amongst the remainder of the community and several very serious social stresses,” the Hope study concluded, “the South Park neighborhood exhibits factors that — if properly developed — show great potential for significant, positive economic changes in the area.”

SEEING A BIGGER PICTURE

A retail developer in Phoenix brought the parcel to the attention of Eastbourne Investments, based in Williamsville, New York.

“We didn’t hesitate,” President Frank Egan said. “We always felt it would be a regional retail site … drawing from much farther than the surrounding neighborhood.”

After forming partnerships with KB Home for future rooftops, and the UA for its Tech Park, they moved forward.

In 2005, Eastbourne and KB Home, with Lennar/US Home, bought the 350-acred parcel for $53 million.

The intimate involvement of area residents was a surprise to Egan.

“It was one of the neat things about this development,” he said. “It was unlike anything we’ve experienced anywhere else.”

Resistance from then-city leaders was quelled by residents who wanted the city to do more to encourage the development, Egan said.

“Neighborhood turnout always exceeded expectations,” he said. “We found out very early on that these were people who cared a lot.”

Eastbourne enlisted Eric Davis, president of Retail West Properties LLC, to engage with neighbors and find out what type of retail they wanted.

“You should always want to meet your neighbors and get them involved to the extent that you can,” Davis said. “You’re joining the community in a lot of different ways.”

Retailers were intrigued but hesitant as the country entered the downturn. Rezoning the property for commercial use was also an uphill battle.

But the new owners were not deterred.

“What surprised me was Eastbourne’s commitment to the project,” Davis said. “I think other investors would have given up, but they were committed to Tucson.”

Six years later, Tucson Marketplace at The Bridges — home to national retailers, a movie theater and eateries — would be born. To this day, the developers continue to reach out to area residents, something that neighborhood activist Blake is impressed by.

“Anything they do there, they call me on the telephone and let me know,” he said. “It doesn’t always happen that way.

“Usually developers come in and throw something up and don’t care about what residents think,” he said. “I appreciate that they didn’t come in and tell us, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do to your neighborhood.’”

A COMMUNITY PROJECT

Cindy Ayala, president of the Pueblo Gardens Neighborhood Association, east of the shopping center, skeptically attended the first meeting in 2005.

But, as meetings became more frequent and developers kept residents informed, she became hopeful.

She started to urge prospective retailers to prioritize the hiring of neighborhood people.

“It’s cool when you go into the stores and see your neighbors,” Ayala said. “This is my legacy to my children and future grandchildren. … They’ll get to hear how grandma fought for them.”

More importantly, she got her Starbucks.

“I call it Cindy’s Starbucks,” she said during an interview at the shop, as she greeted the employees by name.

“If it wasn’t for the fact that we all came together,” Ayala said, “we wouldn’t have any of this.”

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said the success of the development is a tip of the hat to how developers engaged local residents.

“The residents understood that by bringing new business to their neighborhood, they increase the values of their homes, make shopping convenient and create nearby jobs for their families,” Rothschild said. “This is the formula for success.”

A POWER CENTER IS BORN

Costco was the first retailer to open its doors in the new Tucson Marketplace at The Bridges in 2011.

The store was built in 110 days and broke an opening-day record with $730,000 in sales, said Ward 5 Councilman Richard Fimbres. The previous record was $600,000.

“It was a home run,” he said. “Its location makes the center appealing to customers from Fort Huachuca, Sierra Vista and Northern Mexico.”

Momentum moved quickly after that with the opening of Walmart, McDonald’s, Culver’s, Starbucks, Smoothie King, Cinemark Theaters, Planet Fitness, Lin’s Buffet and Dave & Busters.

New tenants coming soon include Jimmy Johns, Popeye’s, Planet Sub and Discount Tire.

The shopping center employs about 1,200 people.

“People needed these local jobs,” Fimbres said. “When people are able to put food on the table, the less they come to mayor and council meetings and yell.”

The shopping center has also changed the larger community’s perception of the area.

“It tore down the stereotypes of, ‘You can’t build on the south side,’” Fimbres said.

Egan, with owner Eastbourne Investments, said he’s eager to add tenants to the project, which is about halfway done.

“We’re still very active in finding other retailers and other opportunities there,” he said.

Egan expects to add more restaurants, entertainment and medical services at the center.

“The project is now starting to look like what we had always planned it would be,” he said. “As exciting as it is now, it’s going to get more exciting.”

THE BEACON

Grumblings from some residents outside the surrounding neighborhoods were heard when Cinemark proposed its 100-foot spire, advertising the theater.

The theater is the biggest Cinemark-owned theater in Tucson and includes amenities such as electronic reclining seats, food trays and a bar.

Some residents complained the spire, that says “Century,” would obstruct their views of the mountains.

“We asked the mayor and council not to listen to people who don’t live or work in our neighborhoods,” Ayala said. “To us, it’s a beacon.”

The council approved the spire.

“You can see that sign from far away and it says, ‘Bring your kids. You can come and have a good time,’” Blake said. “It represents something.”

Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at grico@tucson.com.