Neto's Tucson: Downtown problems give way to welcome

2014-08-16T20:00:00Z 2014-08-16T22:24:14Z Neto's Tucson: Downtown problems give way to welcomeBy Ernesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Back when Congress Street was ripped open to make way for the streetcar, Margo Susco, owner of eye-catching clothing store Hydra Leather and More, put in the display window her signs of discontent. She had had it with the city over the disruption of the commercial core and she wanted everyone who passed through the busy northwest corner of Congress and Sixth Avenue to know it.

People told her she was either crazy or a marketing genius. She was neither. Susco was simply fed up with the lack of communication and information from the city, for her and her fellow downtown merchants.

More than two years later, if Susco were to put up new signs, they would be 180 degrees different. The new signs, alongside the retrofitted mannequins that have replaced the sex and leather dolls that gave people pause, would be warm and welcoming.

They would say, “Don’t be afraid.” “Come to downtown.” “We still believe.”

You can understand Susco’s change. With the approaching 20th anniversary of Hydra’s opening, Susco has seen myriad changes in downtown since she returned to her hometown.

It’s been up. It’s been down. Downtown has gone sideways and nowhere.

Now with a cluster of restaurants and clubs at the east end of Congress, the new streetcar and popular events like 2nd Saturdays, a steady string of entertainment at the Rialto Theatre, Congress Hotel and the Fox Tucson Theatre, downtown is vibrant and visible. More people are filling its sidewalks, a number of them for the first time.

“There’s a new energy and vibe I haven’t felt in a long time,” said Susco. “I want people to give downtown a chance.”

She’s primarily thinking of doubting Tucsonans who still hang on to outdated images or ones that never existed. Susco still hears from people that they do not venture downtown because they believe it’s dangerous or that the streets are difficult to navigate or there’s no parking or whatever other will-not-go reason they can come up with.

Susco said she tell the skeptics that downtown is safe, accessible and a fun place to spend time.

“I’m downtown all the time,” she said.

She’s bullish on downtown and has been since she opened her boutique in November 1994, several months after returning to Tucson. But there were times when her optimism, as bright and flashy as the clothes on the racks and walls, had turned threadbare.

When she placed her SOS signs in the store windows, she said, it was a protest of last resort. She felt that she and other downtown merchants were being thrown under the wheels of the electric streetcar.

While other businesses did not survive the nearly two-year construction period and when city plans changed without notice, Susco said, Hydra survived. She attributed the store’s survival to pre-construction planning, savvy sales, loyal customers who braved the closed street and chain-link-fence barriers, and lower operating costs.

“I gave it my everything,” said Susco, a Sabino High School grad.

In addition to surviving, Hydra has evolved and has reinvented itself. The most obvious changes are seen in the window displays. They are the creations of Susco’s younger brother and business partner, Joe Susco. He joined his sis about two years ago after living in Italy, where he operated a store. The Suscos have since opened a sister store in Bisbee.

Although downtown has entered a new era with more changes to come, there are growing pains. Last weekend’s 2nd Saturday attracted enormous crowds, which created serious problems for the streetcar. Some would-be passengers were left on the sidewalk while packed cars passed them by.

But those are good problems to have. The venues are full, individuals and families are enjoying the evenings, and the streetcar is rolling.

Susco invites nonbelievers to come to downtown to find out for themselves. She might even put up a sign saying so.

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is a native Tucsonan and remembers an older downtown. Contact him at 573-4187 or at netopjr@tucson.com

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

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