Tucson has Raytheon and the aerospace and high-tech corridor around the airport, and the UA Tech Park with IBM, Raytheon and other high-tech firms to the southeast.
Oro Valley has Ventana Medical Systems/Roche Tissue Diagnostics, Icagen and Securaplane at its Innovation Park.
Now the tiny town of Sahuarita is looking to build its first tech park, the Sahuarita Advanced Manufacturing and Technology Center (SAMTEC) with the help of a $3 million federal grant.
And it has two potential first tenants, both involved in the fast-growing drone industry.
Sahuarita won the grant through the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration.
The grant, along with about $1.2 million in matching funds from the town and a $165,000 grant from Freeport McMoRan, will be used to construct a 32,000-square-foot, single-story commercial building on a roughly four-acre lot south of West Sahuarita Road and east of South La Cañada Drive.
The Arizona Commerce Authority provided a Rural Economic Development Grant for a required sewer extension at the project site in 2015.
The town plans to put architectural and design work out to bid in the next month or so and break ground in the first quarter of 2018, with a goal of occupying the center by sometime in mid-2019, said Victor Gonzalez, Sahuarita’s economic-development manager.
SAMTEC is small compared with other tech parks in the region, but Gonzalez said it is an important step as the town with a reputation as a bedroom community seeks to diversify its economy under its long-term strategic growth plan.
“It’s going to be a first for Sahuarita,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t compare to the (UA) Tech Park, but its our way to start to establish a presence that we can retain. And in the long term, this facility becomes an anchor for other types of facilities in this area.”
In a small town dominated by housing — Sahuarita has about 28,000 residents on 32 square miles — two growing high-tech companies stood out, Gonzalez said.
Hydronalix Inc. — a maker of robotic watercraft for rescue and research founded by University of Arizona alumnus and serial entrepreneur Tony Mulligan — was looking for space to grow as it ramps up production.
Next door, Control Vision Inc. also is growing its business making optical sensors and control systems for heavy-duty industrial, scientific and military applications.
“We knew that we needed to find a solution to retain those companies in the community,” Gonzalez said.
In late 2015, Sahuarita got the bad news that Freeport McMoRan, a major local employer, was cutting about 500 workers at its nearby Sierrita Mine, citing low copper prices.
Freeport ended up delaying making further planned cuts, but the job losses allowed the SAMTEC project to qualify for a federal Economic Adjustment Assistance grant to help distressed communities.
“The stars aligned, in a sense,” Gonzalez said, noting that Freeport has provided other grants to help further the town’s economic plan.
The town expects that SAMTEC will attract other companies as suppliers, estimating the project will create 75 new jobs, retain 31 jobs and generate $500,000 in private investment.
Hydronalix has sold hundreds of its EMILY robotic watercraft to first responders for ocean and inland water rescue and similar watercraft to the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for research.
But the company is running out of space as demand for its watercraft increases, said Mulligan, who founded Hydronalix shortly after selling his unmanned aircraft company, Advanced Ceramics Research, to defense giant BAE Systems in 2009.
“The SAMTEC park is very important to us because it gives us a place we can expand our production,” Mulligan said. “One of the big problems in the Sahuarita area is there’s no industrial space.”
Mulligan said the company plans to keep its current space in an office park off West Duval Mine Road and add 20,000 square feet at SAMTEC for production and consolidate its supply.
“This let’s us do that, otherwise, we’d have to look seriously at moving to Tucson or another location,” Mulligan said, adding that the company has 24 employees and is hiring nine more.
Daniel Crawford, owner of Control Vision, said he’s in the same boat.
The former Raytheon engineer and Marine said he has 13 employees who design and make imaging systems that help guide controls for industrial processes like precision casting and welding. He said he plans to hire six or seven more people in the near future.
“We’re growing really fast and the little office space we have in Sahuarita, we’ve outgrown,” said Crawford, recalling how Mulligan helped him launch his then garage-based business in 2011 by giving him some extra space at the time.
Crawford says he lives near Sahuarita and is happy the town is giving him space to grow.
“I like the small-town feel,” he said.
Hydronalix and Control Vision are expected to take up all but about 5,000 square feet of the SAMTEC building, Gonzalez said.
But there is room to expand SAMTEC on the town land and it is part of an undeveloped area, including private land, of about 60 acres that is zoned for business parks.