Tonight a variety of Tucson enterprises will get what is probably the area’s most coveted business recognition — the Copper Cactus awards, for workplace excellence, technological innovation and other achievements.
In my years as business editor, 2005 to 2009, we always reported those annual winners but also joked about creating a take-off award, given not to the best performing local businesses but to those that had closed in the previous year.
We called it the Copper Casket award.
It was a tongue-in-cheek idea, of course, one we’d think of whenever we reported another business closing. That happened a lot during those scary years of economic free fall.
The unamusing thing is that in the last year the pace of business closures in Tucson feels like it has been quickening, not slowing with the economic recovery.
As my colleague Cathalena Burch reported Sept. 18, five local restaurants with 144 years in business have closed since April: Venice Restaurant & Pizzeria, Chad’s Steakhouse & Saloon, El Parador Restaurant, Anthony’s in the Catalinas and El Mezon del Cobre. It would be worrisome if it were just those, but enough other local businesses have qualified for a Copper Casket award that it’s downright alarming.
Here’s a partial list, mostly of retailers and restaurants, that have closed in the last year or are about to close:
17th Street Market
Bella D’Auria restaurant
Big Juan’s Tacos y Burros
Brio Tuscan Grille
Dee’s Shoe Store
Enoteca Pizzeria and Wine Bar
Franklin’s Men’s Clothing Store
Las Cazuelitas Mexican restaurant
Redline Sports Grill
There are several Tucson institutions in that list, such as 17th Street Market, Cactus Bowl, Dee’s Shoe Store, Marshall’s Jewelers and Zachary’s Pizza.
I’ve asked people what the problem is, as have other Star reporters recently. Each business has its own story, of course, but the most common underlying factor is frustratingly simple: We have a weak economy in Tucson, with too many people making too little money to support all these businesses competing for our dollars.
Mike Varney is president of the group that gives the Copper Cactus awards, the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and he said the chamber has been losing smaller-business members, not larger ones, lately. When they drop their chamber membership, they usually say either that they don’t have the money for it, or they’ve gone out of business, Varney told me Tuesday.
“Typically smaller companies, especially newer smaller companies, struggle to get through economic troughs,” he said. “What they need the most right now is sales, people with money in their pockets coming in to buy their goods and services.”
Joe Higgins, a local entrepreneur who is past chairman of the Arizona Small Business Association, noted that some business owners have held out for years hoping for a stronger recovery to kick in, only to see growth keep creeping along.
Another factor, he said, is access to capital, which has been tough for small businesses as banks have sat on their cash instead of lending it in the years since the recession.
UA economist Marshall Vest pointed to two other factors that may be leading to local business closures: A simple oversupply of restaurants in Tucson, and the fact that baby boomers who own businesses are reaching an age when they want to get out.
Whether the business closures are rising in number is unclear, Vest said, but it looks like parts of Tucson’s economy are experiencing a wave of “creative destruction.” That’s a term for the period in economic cycles when old businesses fold and are replaced by ones with superior methods and products.
It may be part of the economic cycle, but it’s still depressing to see Tucson’s businesses earn so many Copper Caskets.