Don’t trust the feeling.
That wouldn’t be prudent.
But you can notice it, ponder it, enjoy it blowing in the breeze. Because undoubtedly it is there: As the summer heat settles on Tucson, a hint of optimism is in the air.
If you read the paper, you’ll know why. We’ve had a run of good-news stories in Tucson going back a year or so. Our landing of Caterpillar’s hub for its surface mining and technology division was the topper.
But that wasn’t even the latest piece of good news. That honor goes to the return of nonstop flights from Tucson to New York City, which have been absent here since 2008. In addition:
HomeGoods is finishing construction of an 800,000-square-foot distribution center that will ultimately employ hundreds of people.
A $32 million AC Hotel by Marriott is going up downtown.
Comcast has opened a high-tech contact center in the former American Home Furnishings building.
World View Enterprises agreed to launch its near-space balloon company here in a $15 million incentive deal.
Banner-University Medical Center is building a new, $400 million hospital building.
The Arizona Coyotes are planning to put a new American Hockey League team in Tucson next season.
Most of these successes mean welcoming new employers who will, we hope, absorb some of Tucson’s underemployed and help drive up wages in this notoriously poor town. But while welcome, those newly arrived employers aren’t necessarily a dependable sign of a broader economic turnaround.
As some companies rise, others — like the local copper mines right now — will fall.
Today, though, UA economist George Hammond is scheduled to tell a gathering of local business people, in his mid-year economic update, that it’s not just a few good-news stories raising optimism. Tucson’s economy actually seems to be improving a bit faster than previously expected.
For example, Hammond told me Tuesday, in December he had forecast that job growth in Tucson this year would be 1 percent. Now he’s adjusting that forecast to 1.7 percent. Not a huge change, but positive nonetheless. And he isn’t basing the improved forecast on a few good-news stories in town, either.
“It’s just the recent data we’re seeing,” he said. It shows “stronger growth for 2016.”
Although Comcast has staffed up its new communications center here, hiring 700 of an expected 1,100 new employees, the more recent deals won’t show up in local economic data for months or years.
One of the strange aspects of this impending Era of Good Feeling is that it has been facilitated by an organization with one of the city’s most reviled names — Rio Nuevo. That name, of course, became synonymous with waste — over a dozen years in which about $250 million was spent with little to show for it.
But now Rio Nuevo is helping accelerate Tucson’s economic recovery.
The Rio Nuevo Multipurpose Facilities District played a crucial role in bringing Caterpillar to town. The district is putting $2 million toward Caterpillar’s moving costs and building a $50 million headquarters for the company just west of I-10 downtown. The company will lease the building from Rio Nuevo.
The district is also helping finance the AC Hotel’s construction, putting $4 million toward the building of the parking lot beneath the hotel.
The hockey team is benefiting from $3.8 million in additional renovations to the Tucson Convention Center arena, with the Coyotes guaranteeing repayment of that amount. Will hockey succeed in Tucson this time? We don’t know, but the amount of risk is low, and the value of having an anchor tenant at the arena is high.
Rio Nuevo also relieved the city of its burden in the property west of downtown, picking up the city’s $1.2 million interest in the Gadsden property. The city had the right to take Gadsden’s bond money, but then that would likely have meant that no lender would have financed projects on the property, Rio Nuevo Chairman Fletcher McCusker told me Tuesday.
“Without our intervention, you’d be looking at dirt over there forever,” he said. “Our mission is what it should have been all along, and that’s economic development.”
The practical significance of each recent project may not be great, but together they amount to something. And you shouldn’t dismiss the power of good-news stories, especially in a town like Tucson, which has been beleaguered for some time. Just the feeling of optimism can create its own forward momentum.
“The greater impact is to the community as a whole, how the community as a whole views itself and views its capacity and potential,” Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said.
There may be no better symbol of that growing optimism than a little, $50,000 project just being completed downtown. The Tohono O’odham Nation granted the money for painting eight new murals.
They’re bursting with color and life. They make you feel good. And, along with the other pieces of good news in Tucson, they’ll make you feel optimistic.