Steller: Pima County needs to list and sell off surplus properties

2014-03-12T00:00:00Z 2014-03-12T09:04:53Z Steller: Pima County needs to list and sell off surplus propertiesTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

There’s a half-block parking lot along East Broadway that reminds you of downtown Tucson’s recent past: Real estate was so cheap that it was more profitable to park cars on it than to build.

Pima County owns this surface lot, at 69 E. Broadway, and has recently taken a tentative first step toward selling it by putting together a marketing brochure.

But the lot’s county-owned existence at a key site along the streetcar route, across Broadway from the new UniSource Energy building, and on the back side of booming East Congress, should prompt us to a broader realization. Pima County owns plenty of property downtown and elsewhere, yet it is not making a systematic effort at deciding what’s surplus and selling it.

I know this in part because I asked for a list of the county’s surplus property but was told there isn’t such a thing.

At a time when the populace is demanding that the county find money to repair decrepit streets, officials need to start making that list and the effort to sell.

Fortunately, there’s a model for how to do it, and it can be found on the same floor of the county-city public works building where the county’s real estate office is housed. For a couple of years, the city of Tucson has been compiling a database of its surplus properties, prioritizing the best ones, and recently began putting them up for sale.

“Now that the market is coming back, we felt now is the time to do it,” Hector Martinez, the director of the city’s real-estate program, told me Tuesday.

Many of the properties that government entities like the city and county accumulate are small slivers of vacant land that they get when they condemn property for road widenings or similar projects. Most aren’t valuable to anybody but the neighboring property owner.

But Martinez and company, working with the CBRE brokerage, went through the city’s 5,000-property inventory and came up with 50-plus properties that looked marketable. You can find them at the city’s ”property for sale” web page, and links on the page allow potential buyers to look into reams of information on each property, as well as bid on some.

So far they’ve sold about $2.4 million worth of real estate. They have more sales and opportunities in the queue, such as 6½ acres near West 22nd Street and Interstate 10 appraised at about $1.6 million.

These sales aren’t going to close the city’s projected $33.5 million budget deficit, but they help in a few ways. Not only do they bring in some one-time bursts of revenue, but they also put the real estate back on county property-tax rolls and they remove liability risks for the city as the property owner.

As County Supervisor Ray Carroll drove around downtown Tuesday afternoon, he spotted county-owned building after county-owned building.

“Vacancy is low, and the interest is high. That’s when we can get the best return on these,” he said. “We should free up some downtown office and retail space and let the trolley do its thing.”

Certainly the county should go about selling property deliberately. Even now, the downtown market is not a sure thing.

“It’s very, very good, but it’s not on fire,” said downtown real-estate broker Buzz Isaacson. “It’s not like anybody can show up downtown and do a development and make a profit.”

Pima County is already planning to consolidate some downtown offices after the new courts complex opens, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry told me. It likely will move to sell the office building at 97 E. Congress, for example.

That humble, 1975 building is like an anchor attached to the intriguing surface parking lot at 69 E. Broadway. The lot provides the parking for some tenants in that building, and Huckelberry says the county may still have to sell them together to ensure the office building has enough parking. He acknowledges, though, that the county could clear out some space in nearby parking structures it owns in order to be able to sell them separately.

There’s a deeper problem here, though, that the county board ought to confront: the practice of dictating just what the county wants a property to become before it sells. How about letting buyers work some of their own magic?

“The best way to show our community we are serious is to list our surplus properties,” Carroll said. Then, he said, “just make deals.”

Taking an inventory and selling surplus county property isn’t going to raise all the money we need to bring the roads up to date. But it would help, and it’s the right thing to do. There’s no need for our government to own property that isn’t serving a public purpose.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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