Story by Kimberly Craft
"I’ve wanted downtown Tucson to come back since I was a little boy here," says Keith. "It’s a dream come true for me."
The story of downtown Tucson redevelopment has too often been one of disappointment and frustration. But a renewed effort in the private sector is putting new businesses on the landscape, and with the announcement of the federal award to Tucson's modern streetcar, the pace seems to have picked up.
For more than a decade Keith has done voluntarily what he will now get paid to do. Those chores include making the business improvement district more efficient, putting dilapidated real estate back into service and facilitating new developments. He says simply he considers his job to make things happen, and his new seat at the table gives him good reason for optimism.
"What’s changed is a lot of the people that used to be on the outside criticizing the process are now on the inside, or they have a stake downtown. We’re much more collectively connected than we have ever been in the past," says Keith.
That connectivity has paved the way for an infusion of private investment, and in this case literally. Fletcher McCusker points to a new reception area crowned with a salvaged piece of sidewalk that his grandfather may have laid at the Santa Rita Hotel as an employee of the WPA in 1929. As Chairman and CEO of the Providence Service Corporation, family fortunes have changed, and he now heads billion dollar publicly traded company operating in 44 states. He surveys the renovation of the Scott Building, originally erected as a gold assay office in 1907, and reflects on the decision to move his company headquarters to the city center.
"It’s the story of being in the right place at the right time and we thing that’s the kind of commitment we’ve brought to downtown Tucson," McCusker says. "We do make things happen, and we’re going to put that energy and investment into the revitalization of downtown."
McCusker says his staff look forward to the rhythm of the city center, to walking and cycling, sampling the variety of new restaurants and exploring entertainment options. He likes the new street scape along Scott Street , with its wide boulevards, lush plantings and new lighting. He also likes the help from the City of Tucson , subsidizing the building facade improvement and greasing the skids to move the project along, even sending inspectors on Saturdays.
"Normally you would grind to a halt in this city development services, and that hasn’t been the case for us. So I do think some new found accountability or some new interest in being business friendly and not just throwing up roadblocks," says McCusker.
The speed has increased because of the modern streetcar, now a more tangible reality thanks to federal funding. The streetcar route, from the University of Arizona, along North Fourth Avenue and through downtown, will eventually arrive on the west side, where Adam Weinstein has already made plans for a transit oriented development. Those include underground parking, retail and office or residential development. Weinstein, Managing Parner, President and CEO of the Gadsden Company, says the streetcar ratcheted up interest in downtown investment.
"Whether they were on the fence about relocating and investing in downtown, I think they were waiting to see that commitment from the City of Tucson, the RTA and the Federal Transit Authority. The announcement was substantial," says Weinstein.
Weinstein feels the forces have aligned at the hub, the birthplace of Tucson, where he has made his grubstake. After a dismal 2009, capital markets have begun to turn, and with an infusion of funds in the form of 8.5 million dollars in new market tax credit equity, the Gadsden Company has resumed construction of the Mercado at San Augustin. Scheduled to open in November of 2010, the LEDE certified complex will host 18 businesses, provide 96 permanent jobs and contribute an estimated 400 thousand dollars annually in sales tax revenue. While the Mercado development moves apace, Weinstein voices what west side residents wish to see, a resolve to continue plans on the west side to stake out the community's cultural identity.
"What is absolutely mission critical is the completion of the heritage elements that are part of the birthplace of Tucson," says Weinstein. "So that can be put in infrastructure, improving the area, and pads, so future development can occur. And if folks are ready to move ahead on a museum or the City of Tucson is to move on something else, they’re in a position to do that."
West-side residents fret about those projects losing momentum. However the economy does show signs of improving, making more Rio Nuevo dollars available to execute the vision. That should bring more residential development to the west side which contains 60% of the available developable land in the downtown.
According to Keith, "its going to take time to get those projects built but when they do , its coming at a time. They’re almost going to be the frosting on the cake."
Meanwhile, the fun starts now. Private investors have stepped up to resurrect Downtown Saturday nights, now called second Saturday. Congress Street will be hopping from the Rialto to the Fox, with vendors, music and arts, with the first event planned for May 8.