What a difference a real estate bust makes.
Or maybe it’s a sign of two adversaries mellowing with age.
Either way, what was billed as a candid conversation between developer Donald Diamond and Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry turned into a love fest. The two traded more compliments than barbs Thursday at a quarterly breakfast of the Pima County Real Estate Research Council.
The two, long considered by many Tucsonans to be the region’s most powerful leaders, spent an hour discussing economic and development-related issues, in response to questions from an audience of about 100.
Topics included the future of Raytheon Missile Systems and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, jobs in general, the highly sought-after Tesla Motors battery factory, the proposed Interstate 11, Pima County’s lack of clout in Phoenix and endless conflicts between Pima County and the city of Tucson.
Diamond’s clout has enabled him to win major rezonings from the county Board of Supervisors throughout the edges of the county’s metro area to build high-end housing developments .
He has regularly donated money to candidates in supervisors’ and other election campaigns that he supports, and is a friend of U.S. Sen. John McCain.
Huckelberry has long been considered a master political strategist, able to routinely win three votes from the board to carry out his policies and plans. He has occupied his current post since 1993.
On Thursday, not only did the two almost never disagree, they took pains to point out how much they agreed.
This strayed dramatically from the scripts the administrator and the developer followed at similar functions in 2001 and 2006. Asked why, both men responded that they’re older. Diamond is 86 and semi-retired. Huckelberry, still high in the saddle, is 64.
The issues have changed, too.
In 2001, Diamond virtually declared war on Huckelberry’s land-saving Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan because he didn’t like the costs and “bells and whistles” associated with it. Huckelberry replied that Diamond didn’t like the plan because he couldn’t control it, “and Don Diamond doesn’t like things he can’t control.”
In 2006, Diamond said county officials “step on us a lot,” and that some government restrictions are “somewhat unbelievable.” Huckelberry countered that rampant development in outlying areas would raise traffic dramatically and jokingly suggested that Diamond was responsible for the death of one of the northwest side’s last remaining, then-endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owls.
Today, the Sonoran Desert plan is a reality, accepted by virtually all local interest groups. The pygmy owl is a distant memory here, having been stricken from the federal endangered list due to developer lawsuits barely two months after the 2006 Huckelberry-Diamond confab.
Even more important, the region’s land-use conflicts have fallen away as fast as its real estate market crashed in 2007 — it’s only slowly recovering today.
On Thursday, when Diamond was asked to name what regulation he’d like eliminated, he replied, “I would say that environmentally we have to be very concerned and not destroy it. ... I believe we are pretty balanced here, now that we got rid of the pygmy owl. I don’t have much to complain about now. It’s roads and infrastructure that are in bad shape.”
Yet Huckelberry said that if it takes modifying the county’s land-use codes to make Tucson more economically competitive, “then we need to do it. Very often, we tie our own hands because we adopt codes tied to a slowly changing economic environment. We’re now in a dynamic economic environment and we need to change for that.”
On other matters:
- After Huckelberry talked about Pima County’s efforts to land a planned Tesla Motors battery factory in a four-state competition, Diamond congratulated the county. Huckelberry said the county is “prepared to do anything we can to be attractive” to that type of industry, including reducing Tesla’s property tax burden 75 percent.
“One element I’m involved in with this is the government in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately it’s very political,” Diamond replied. “I’m working on that. Senator McCain is a friend of a gentleman there. ... The state has already agreed to some of the reductions. But you know, Texas is unbelievable in what they offer.”
- When Diamond was asked what could help the area grow economically, he replied, “We are unfunded and looked down on by Phoenix. An example is Route I-11. Phoenix is saying that I-11 is going to start in Phoenix, and be a road just from there to Vegas. I-11 was supposed to start here, and be terribly important. Phoenix is against us.
“Governor (Jan) Brewer mailed me a list of appointments and we get very, very few. On ADOT, which is key with Chuck and which is where we get money for roads, it’s been swept up (by the Legislature, for other programs). We get no money.”
Huckelberry replied, “I think Donald’s right. I used to equate it with the big-brother, big-sister syndrome. Now, I think it’s the middle-child syndrome. We’re the second-largest area. We need to make our voices heard much more often, a little louder.”
Later, he added, “We have to be more Phoenix-centric, getting more members on boards and commissions. The agency providing incentives for job creation has only two of 20 governing members from Pima County. If you look at the data, the data tells you that Phoenix is getting a disproportionate share of the jobs.”
Diamond observed, “He handled that well.”
- When asked how to get more women in leadership roles in real estate, Diamond replied, “It seems that what we’re hiring now is no different. But first of all, it’s college. I have a daughter graduating, hopefully in a couple of days. I look at hospitals. I see the percentages at the university. I listen to my wife and my daughters, and I don’t think it’s unequal. They’re winning.”
Huckelberry added, “About half my management staff is women, and someday, we’ll have a woman county administrator and city manager.”
- When asked about the fractured city-county relationship, Huckelberry admitted, “It’s inexcusable.
“We need to double up our efforts to make sure it doesn’t happen. I can’t stress it enough. If it were better, we’d be more competitive,” the administrator said.
Diamond agreed, although he said he thinks the city is trying to turn things around and has succeeded with downtown.
“But they didn’t recognize the need for infrastructure to connect the city with Pima County. ... They’re doing it now, but it’s a late bloomer. ... The city has a more difficult job. They have unions, the Fire Department, the Police Department, they have to overcome a period of 40 to 50 years,” Diamond said. “Chuck is all over the place talking to people like us, asking us what could we do.
“The city is not that way. (Mayor Jonathan) Rothschild goes all over the place, to every meeting. That’s fine and dandy, but I haven’t met the city manager.”
- When Diamond was asked if county taxes are a problem, he replied, “I don’t know that. If I did, I wouldn’t answer. It would tend to incriminate me.”
Huckelberry said that taxes are only high if you’re in high-end residential real estate, which Diamond is. The county actually lowered tax rates and taxes during the recession, and kept county services from crashing since that started by relying on its rainy day fund, set aside for emergencies.
“Now, we’re probably recommending tax increases next year to the board, and they have an alternative. They can cut services,” Huckelberry said.
- When asked about Davis-Monthan’s future, Diamond responded, “I think it changed last month with Russia,” a reference to that country’s annexation of the Crimea and other moves seen as aggressive toward Ukraine.
“I’m a political junkie. I understand from fairly good sources that due to what’s happened with the Ukraine, armed services (an apparent reference to the House Armed Services Committee) is taking a strong position on the A-10. It’s salvaged, and it saved us for a few years. I think we have a good private sector group that meets with D-M and in Washington, and because of what happens internationally, I think we’re going to be all right.”
Huckelberry agreed, saying, “When we talk about protecting our major employers after Raytheon, D-M is Number 2 on our list. We need to do everything we can to support Davis-Monthan, which has been here since 1927 and was christened by Charles Lindbergh. It has assets that no one else has in this country — called flying space and training space at the Goldwater Range.”