Tucson sprawls across a great distance, with clusters of chain stores, convenience marts and big-box retailers dotting many busy roadways. Residents may not need to venture beyond their end of town for groceries, gas, dining or entertainment.

But stick to the roads you already know and you'll miss part of what makes Tucson an interesting and vibrant place to live - the small businesses, shops, restaurants, food establishments that have grown up along streets and created districts that, with some municipal TLC, can thrive and become a destination for locals, and for people outside the neighborhood.

This is the hope for South 12th Avenue, from Ajo Way to Drexel Road. A new group, the South Side Business Coalition, has come together to advocate for the stretch that has great potential to become a cultural hub.

The avenue is lined with food stands, some of the city's best bakeries, Sonoran hot dog outfits, religious shops and jewelry stores. It's a gem that many Tucsonans don't know, we venture to say, because unless you live or work on the south side it's easy to miss.

The potential also is easily obscured by broken sidewalks, graffiti, parking lots with trash and broken glass, nonfunctional streetlights and disrepair. But the transformation of South Fourth Avenue a few miles away offers a good example of how city officials and residents can work together to turn a neighborhood thoroughfare into a corridor that brings in business from outside the area.

South Fourth Avenue has tile artwork on benches, a curvy road that discourages speeding and landscaping that makes it more a pathway than a nondescript street. It didn't happen overnight, but it is good example of building on the assets already there - long-established and thriving Mexican restaurants - and branding it as a unified destination.

Tucson Vice Mayor Regina Romero and Pima County Supervisor Richard Elias, who both represent the 12th Avenue corridor, are working with the South Side Business Coalition to find funding for improvement projects.

Tucson City Manager Richard Miranda said Friday during an interview on Bill Buckmaster's radio show that he supports the idea, but that finding money will be the challenge. Romero stated in a Star news story last week by Joseph Trevino that she hopes the county will include a 12th Avenue improvement proposal in its 2014 bond request to voters.

Tucson's cultural texture owes a large debt to its ties with Mexico, and embracing South 12th Avenue as a special part of our city will benefit locals and visitors alike.

Arizona Daily Star