At the invitation of my friends at the town of Marana, I attended the TREO annual luncheon Sept. 25. As most of you know, if you listen to “Wake Up Tucson” or have read this column over the past few years, TREO has long been a piñata to beat on. I will only spend a short time on it, because I would like to focus on the words of Arizona State University President Dr. Michael Crow. He and University of Arizona President Ann Weaver Hart were the featured speakers after the mandated TREO propaganda lunch.
Let’s keep the TREO bashing down to a minimum. It’s tough to sit there and listen to fantasyland rhetoric when it comes to this organization’s paltry efforts in stimulating economic development. When the outgoing board chair mentioned that TREO was “mission focused” and “metrics matter,” I almost regurgitated my elegantly put together salad.
The TREO folks mentioned that location, the cost of doing business and the presence of well-educated workers in a market is what site selectors are looking for. They can do nothing about location. They have done very little about focusing the local educational institutions on preparing the right workers for the right jobs.
When you take $500,000 from Pima County, it would take a certain amount of courage to talk about the lousy business environment that has been propagated by local elected officials for the past three decades. It is an environment that is at the top of the list of reasons for why not to come to Pima County. And one word that definitely does not come to mind when thinking of TREO is courage.
Crow discussed two concepts that are essential for any region to ascend and succeed. He first talked about sacrificing sacred cows. The second thing he talked about was something he called transformative change.
Every community has its sacred cows. Pima County has quite a few, all of which make the cost of doing business sometimes untenable. Each of these sacred cows can be linked back to ideological or political origins. They range from our overzealous environmentalism, to neighborhood associations fighting infill development to government handouts that are seen as superior to finding the downtrodden a real paying job.
Look what a group of NIMBYS and environmentalists have done to the Rosemont mine approval process. Hundreds of thousands of pages of reports and comments have been submitted to the various governmental agencies. And this mine, with its many well-paying jobs and large local economic impact, is still sitting on the shelf after seven years. The Tucson City Council has created an environment that’s OK for neighborhood associations to attempt to extort payment from people trying to develop infill projects that would help prevent sprawl that the county so desperately wants to quash. These stories are getting old and tired.
Crow then spoke of transformative change. Naturally he couched that in a discussion about education. Incremental change is fighting over how much education is funded. Transformative change is talking through the various ways the education process can be changed at its core. In this day of rapidly changing technological trends, those who are not changing are rapidly dying. Sad to say, I think what he was trying to convey fell on deaf ears.
Yes, I know this was Tucson’s business community’s crème de la crème sitting at the Westin La Paloma. To review recent past history, TREO commissioned a blueprint to success for Tucson. This blueprint, which TREO is currently in the midst of updating, listed as the top two challenges facing Tucson as a “lack of public sector leadership” and a “lack of private sector leadership.” As you can see by the behavior of our elected officials (and our business leaders) over the past few years, it has gotten worse, not better. Instead of change, elected officials have dug in their heels (Grand Canyon University, for instance) and the business leaders have either further ingratiated themselves or run for the hills.
You can tell by the healthy attendance at this function that Tucson’s business community is really looking for a group of individuals to lead them to a better business paradise. Crow’s words of sacrifice and change, I fear, went unheard. The business leaders of Tucson, or at least the ones who put themselves up as leaders, would rather help rule an economic purgatory than help anyone get to paradise.
My thanks to Crow and Hart for trying to change the mindset out there. Perhaps they need to teach a “Leadership 101” class for our local business and political leaders.
It couldn’t hurt.