You’d be hard-pressed to find an aspect of Tucson that entrepreneur Fletcher McCusker hasn’t influenced in some way. Whether it’s local restaurants, hotels, music, healthcare, business, education or radio, the University of Arizona alumnus has worked with all of them. It’s for this reason McCusker is being awarded the Inside Tucson Business Executive Excellence Lifetime Achievement Award. But if you ask him, all of his various passions do have a common thread.
McCusker’s indelible mark on the city began when he returned after 22 years away, in order to launch Providence Service Corporation in 1996.
“I remember driving through downtown and seeing how depressing everything was. Storefronts were boarded up, the Fox Theatre was closed,” McCusker said. “There really wasn’t anything happening.”
Providence provides access to medical and non-medical services, including non-emergency medical transportation. During the next decade, Providence greatly expanded, turning into a billion-dollar business with 11,000 employees across the country. As CEO, McCusker took the company public and relocated the headquarters into downtown Tucson in 2010 as a way to begin to invest in the community.
“I said if we’re going to be downtown, let’s really be downtown,” McCusker said. “Let’s engage with the museums and theatres, and see what we can do to attract other people downtown.”
In brainstorming about how to support downtown, Providence employees realized food and music would make the most difference. As such, McCusker spent more than $10,000,000 to help launch Second Saturdays, a monthly downtown music festival that attracts more than 10,000 attendees.
“And it was true: When you had a reason to come downtown, people started coming downtown,” McCusker said. “If you look at downtown from 2010 to 2013, it was the restaurants that were making a difference: The Playground, The HUB, Diablo Burger, 47 Scott, Maynards. The place came alive, and all of a sudden, downtown Tucson mattered.”
Around that same time, in July 2012, McCusker was appointed to the board of Rio Nuevo, a tax-increment finance district created in 1999 to invest and create a dynamic city center. Now, McCusker had an official responsibility to create economic development downtown.
McCusker traveled to multiple other cities, taking note of how they revitalized and improved their urban environment. To him, two cities stood out: Austin and San Diego. Austin because it’s a hip college town with a lot of restaurants and music, making its downtown a true destination. And San Diego because of its TIF model; the coastal city specifically made business partnerships with the private sector, rather than the government. While the deals are seeded with government money, they are developed privately. McCusker attributes Rio Nuevo’s 1999 to 2009 failure due to its focus on government, not private sector partnerships. McCusker brought that private sector model to Tucson in 2013, and since then, Rio Nuevo has facilitated 21 private development transactions.
Through all of these developments, McCusker says Marriott opening the AC Hotel in 2017 was the centerpiece of downtown’s revival. It was the first hotel to open downtown in decades, and coincided with Marriott opening AC Hotels in four other “happening” cities: Miami, New Orleans, Chicago and San Diego.
“So there is a common thread: My commitment to Tucson and downtown Tucson,” McCusker said. “February of this year was downtown Tucson’s best month ever, with more revenue and interest than ever before. But then we wake up in March to the pandemic, and are now in survival mode.”
Throughout an extremely difficult summer and fall, downtown lost several restaurant staples, including Cafe Poca Cosa, DOWNTOWN Kitchen+Cocktails and Elvira’s. However, McCusker says Tucson is well-equipped to survive the pandemic, due to the city being dispersed, diversified and affordable. In addition, businesses are getting creative with how to safely drum up revenue during COVID: restaurants hosting open-air seating, a rise in drive-in theaters, and other outdoor performances. While Rio Nuevo is looking to add events such as these downtown, they do not have anything major on the “front-burner” right now.
“If you think about why we were successful, people didn’t come downtown just to eat,” McCusker said. “Downtown was a happening thing: You went to a restaurant and a concert and ice hockey. There was always plenty to do. And we are struggling to come up with those activities.”
Despite this, there are downtown developments in the works that began prior to COVID. Among these are a $38 million, 170-room DoubleTree hotel at the Tucson Convention Center that is planned to open in early 2021. A dual-branded Hilton hotel is also planned to open early 2021. The Hilton property will be a 76-room Hampton Inn and a 123-room Home2Suites, the first extended-stay hotel in downtown Tucson. McCusker says these will hopefully bring “a little more life” to the current state of downtown, and “never would have happened” had Marriott not picked Tucson for one of their AC Hotels.
In addition, outside developers are also looking to settle in Tucson, such as sportswear company WOW Studios, which is relocating from Seattle to downtown Tucson in January 2021. The company estimates their relocation will have an economic impact of $252 million over the next 10 years, and will create 50 jobs in engineering, marketing, design and sales.
“We’ve never seen more out-of-town developers in and around Tucson than we have in the last couple of months,” said McCusker, who recently recommitted himself to Rio Nuevo. “I’m convinced and optimistic that post-pandemic, we will rise again . . . The state is committed, the city is committed, I’ve got a nice relationship with Mayor Romero, and we’re all committed to resurrecting downtown again, again.”