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Grim picture of Tucson painted without leaders' 'awakening'

Grim picture of Tucson painted without leaders' 'awakening'

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Cities and regions will fight for workers, there won't be enough caregivers for retirees, the ranks of the unskilled and unemployed will grow and the region's infrastructure will crumble unless Tucson redefines its economic base.

Those were among the sobering predictions by economic development expert Mark Lautman on Thursday during a visit to Tucson.

Hoping to stir an "awakening" among city leaders, the Tucson Metro Chamber hosted his visit with members of the political and business communities.

The author of "When Boomers Bail: A Community Economics Survival Guide" warned that too many dependent residents - retirees and the unskilled unemployed - and not enough young talent and skilled workers will make Tucson's economy not viable.

"We boomers didn't have enough kids to replace ourselves," Lautman said.

The city's sprawl will also present a challenge as retirees age, he said.

"Tucson's biggest problem is that lots of people are getting ready to retire and 10 years after that, they won't be able to drive," Lautman said. "And this is the most spread-out place."

The mixture of residents left behind by young professionals being recruited elsewhere could repel companies looking to relocate to Tucson, or force other companies out, Lautman said.

He said matching employers to the ability of our current workforce is a better strategy than having Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities Inc. (TREO) woo corporations to Tucson.

"We have a phantom workforce," Lautman said. "Unemployment is not a metric. It's how many qualified people do you have?"

One strategy is to test the unemployed population and find a majority skill set, then go out and find a company that needs a pool of that sort of worker, he said.

Laura Shaw, TREO's senior vice president for marketing and communications, said the group "has long recognized talent as the main driver of economic success."

She said TREO is discussing "new approaches to better connect labor supply and demand as part of our overall economic development plan."

Lautman said incentives such as senior care for employees' aging parents could attract younger workers, as could an incubator for independent workers who operate out of their homes.

He is a founding director of Albuquerque-based Community Economics Lab, a think tank for new approaches to economic development.

In his book, he describes a "Loserville" vs. a "Winnerville" city.

In Loserville

• Almost all qualified workers are fully employed, leaving no labor pool to attract new companies.

• The community is desensitized from years of reports of poor economic and education rankings.

• Maintenance of roads or landscaping is reduced or eliminated.

• Revenues shrink as demand for services increases, leading to tax increases.

• "CAVE" people - Citizens Against Virtually Everything - decry business incentives.

In Winnerville

• The number of 24- to 44-year-olds is at parity with the number of 64- to 84-year-olds.

• The city has a good reputation as a community where people want to live and work.

• Discretionary spending goes to technology, workforce training and preventative maintenance.

• There's a growing tax base from economic expansion.

• Businesses work with schools to develop a pipeline of workers to attract more companies.

Mike Varney, president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber, called Lautman's presentation "provocative."

He said the city's recent decision to take El Rio Golf Course off the table as a site for a proposed Grand Canyon University campus epitomized the mentality that will hurt Tucson.

"The narrow, single-issue crowd can no longer be allowed to deprive the community of economic vitality and growth," Varney said. Varney plans to take Lautman's "Loserville" and "Winnerville" list and see where Tucson falls.

Lautman said Tucson must redefine its economic base since many federal dollars, on which the city has been dependent, could vanish.

"It's hard for a community that's been skating, but the current model is not sustainable," he said. "It would be immoral not to act."

"We have a phantom workforce. Unemployment is not a metric. It's how many qualified people do you have?"

Mark Lautman, economic development expert

Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at or 573-4232.

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