Something unusual happened in the Pima County Board of Supervisors last week.
A potential economic-development deal in the county’s new “aerospace corridor,” southwest of the Tucson International Airport, came up for a vote — and passed 5-0.
Supervisor Ally Miller, who has mocked and questioned the idea of attracting employers to that area for years, voted yes this time. The unanimous vote was in favor of starting negotiations with Vector Space Systems, a local company that plans to build rockets there and employ up to 200 people in good-paying jobs.
This is a welcome change from Miller, but sadly late in coming. It has become an open secret in town that the county is courting a gigantic source of jobs for the same area, just south of Raytheon Missile Systems.
My colleague Murphy Woodhouse reported last week that the county and city are negotiating deals that would bring up to 3,543 jobs at an average salary of $79,100. Not all are at the aerospace corridor.
But my colleagues and I can tell you today that the big source of jobs, an estimated 1,975, would come from a proposed expansion of Raytheon Missile Systems into the aerospace corridor.
This, of course, was the entire thinking behind the county’s rerouting the Hughes Access Road and buying 400 acres of land — to create a buffer that protects Raytheon’s business from houses being built nearby, and to allow Raytheon and other aerospace businesses to locate there.
Raytheon Missile Systems, the region’s biggest private employer, stunned Tucson in 2010 when it announced an expansion to Huntsville, Alabama, citing the lack of space here. That got Pima County, the Tucson Airport Authority, the city of Tucson and others working on a solution.
Strangely, Miller, whose husband works for Raytheon, has from the beginning of her term questioned the idea of correcting the problem that lost us that business. (On Tuesday, she did not return a call from me, and she prevented me from attending a lunchtime presentation she gave to the local Republican Club.)
In June 2013, she voted against issuing the contracts to begin designing the new road and against advancing a master plan for the project. In February 2014, she repeated the argument she had made before and then — a strangely self-centered one.
“The one thing that is always interesting to me is that not a single representative of Raytheon has contacted me or my office,” she said. “As a voting member of this board, one would think that the Raytheon executives who want this road moved so badly would be here in this meeting or would have contacted my office because I’m one of the people who will be voting on it.”
Roads, it seems — other roads — were a higher priority for Miller. That’s shortsighted on its own. The problem is she’s actually gone further and criticized the idea of trying to fix the problem that led to Raytheon taking jobs to Alabama.
In that 2014 meeting, she told County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, “You’re saying let’s build it now, when they’ve already moved, and we hope that they’ll come. I do not want to invest taxpayer money on the hope that somebody will come and invest in technical facilities.”
Miller continued her skepticism toward the aerospace corridor earlier this year, when the county struck a deal with World View Enterprises to build a space port on the property along with a space-balloon-manufacturing facility.
Now, in my mind, this skepticism was warranted. The county did not offer enough time to review the proposal before supervisors passed it in January, and the terms of the deal arguably go against the state constitution’s Gift Clause. We know that because, thanks to Miller’s objections, the Goldwater Institute got involved and sued Pima County over the deal, and the case is headed toward trial.
Taken in isolation, Miller’s approach to the World View deal was correct, but as part of a pattern, it was wrong. The pattern is, she has until recently said no to anything to do with moving Hughes Access Road and creating the aerospace corridor in order to accommodate the possible growth of Raytheon or location of other firms.
Beyond opposing the idea, Miller has seemed to scoff at the idea of firms wanting to expand or locate here. She has placed herself among the group of locals who think Tucson and Pima County can never do anything right, so why try?
But guess what? It looks like businesses do want to work here. And they specifically like the aerospace corridor. While World View’s business model is somewhat risky, Vector seems a more solid prospect: It will make small rockets to send small satellites into space.
And then, of course, there’s Raytheon.
Company spokesman John Patterson emailed me a generic answer when I asked about plans to expand here “Raytheon is always positioning itself for growth. As we continue to win new business, we will evaluate expansion opportunities in Tucson and at other company sites, and staff accordingly to execute on our contracts.”
But Missile Systems CEO Taylor Lawrence said publicly in August that the company is growing here and considering an expansion.
And let’s face it, Raytheon would not be considering the possibility if it weren’t for the buffer and the re-routed Hughes Access Road. If Miller, who is up for re-election right now, had gotten her way, none of this would be happening.