South Tucson, whose motto is “the pueblo within a city,” wants to have more pueblo and less city in an effort to improve its financial future.
As part of its proposed economic development plan, South Tucson — which is surrounded by the city of Tucson — wants to expand its boundaries north to 22nd Street, east to Park Avenue and west past Interstate 10.
The planned annexation would almost double the size of the 1.2-square-mile city that’s best known for its collection of Mexican restaurants.
“Trying something ambitious and bold is important. It puts the city of South Tucson in a position to say, ‘This is who we are, this is what we want to be, this is who we want to become,’” said David Carranza, South Tucson economic development specialist.
Developed by City Manager Benny Young and his staff, the plan was recently presented before the South Tucson City Council, which gave its blessing to explore the idea.
“We’re very fragile financially right now, we need to expand our retail tax base,” Young said.
Although Arizona does have a process for what South Tucson is proposing, it is definitely a rare occurrence, said Ken Strobeck, executive director, League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
“Generally when these kind of situations come up it’s usually on something that’s logically part of one city but by how lines were drawn belongs to another, so it’s just a matter of straightening up corners,” he said. “It’s not usually even thought about like in the case of South Tucson, where they just want to get bigger.”
While the annexation of Tucson land is a hard sell, said Young, he feels a recent meeting with Mayor Jonathan Rothschild continues to leave the option open.
“He indicated a willingness for talks at staff level about the possibility of structuring a mutually beneficial business relationship,” Young said. “In my mind that would involve possible de-annexation by the city and annexation by South Tucson.”
Rothschild said that while annexation is unlikely to occur, South Tucson’s plan as a whole is a move in the right direction and would benefit the entire metro area.
“I think they have some real opportunity there and it will help the region,” he said. “The extra efforts that we can make towards South Tucson are going to pay benefits for the city of Tucson.”
businesses express curiosity
When told about South Tucson’s proposal, business owners in the planned expansion area said they weren’t immediately opposed to the idea and were interested about the benefits annexation could bring.
South Tucson has a lower property tax than Tucson but also has a higher sales tax — 8.6 percent compared to Tucson’s 8.1 percent — the result of budget woes brought on by the elimination of an illegal secondary property tax enacted in 2011.
Alonso Dorame, owner of LA Tires & Wheels, which sits just beyond the South Tucson limits at the corner of 25th Street and South Sixth Avenue, said a higher sales tax doesn’t bother him.
“I really care for South Tucson. It would be nice if they grow a little bit more so they can get more things going on,” he said.
He was encouraged by South Tucson’s plans and said it would be good to see the city return to its former glory.
“I’ve been here all my life and I’ve seen South Sixth at one time be better than Speedway, better than Broadway, there were so many people that everybody wanted to be in South Tucson,” Dorame said.
At a recent forum for South Tucson business owners to introduce the economic development plan, most were skeptical about annexation but many were happy with their experience in the city.
“I could not have done what I did here in the city of Tucson without many months of delay and exorbitant expenses,” said Dwight Metzger, owner of The Gloo Factory. “I think because of their size they can treat these things on a human level that’s not so bureaucratic.”
Metzger moved his print shop four years ago from the Warehouse Arts District to a building on East 26th Street.
As long as South Tucson’s development is in keeping with the unique nature of the city, he said he is all for economic development.
“The city of South Tucson should be mindful about who they work with and how they promote things,” Metzger said. “Don’t just give the shop away because it might mean some jobs or extra sales tax.”
Development incentives, too
While annexation is the focal point of attention, South Tucson’s plan also includes a development incentive program called a Government Property Lease Excise Tax — or GPLET — which eliminates property taxes for up to eight years, and business corridor branding and promotion along South Fourth and South Sixth avenues.
The GPLET business district would be on about 37 acres on the south end of the city, part of which faces Interstate 10, and includes the property where a deteriorated 70-foot metal frame — once the Spanish Trail Motel sign — gives travelers a dubious welcome to the area.
“Everybody that comes into Tucson from the southeast comes right by South Tucson and the appearance needs some improvement,” Young said.
A development along the highway would also give the city an economic boost and, it is hoped, attract tourist dollars.
“We need to embrace the spending power of our Mexican neighbors that pass us by heading up to other places to shop when they come to the Tucson area,” Young said.
South Tucson officials stressed that even if annexation was impossible, simply talking with Tucson and opening up the lines of dialogue with its other neighbors is vital to the city’s continued existence.
“We haven’t always been on the best of terms with the city or the county,” Young said. “But we have to work together at the jurisdictional level. Issues have to be approached from a regional perspective. What’s good for the individual parts is good for the whole.”