Then-Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild kicked off this year’s TENWEST Festival with the “Building Innovative CIties” Conference.  

Over the last decade, Tucson has seen a renaissance in its innovation and entrepreneurial sector. While there is a long way to go, there is renewed energy from the University of Arizona and the public and private sectors to invest more energy and creativity into new startups of all kinds and sizes launched out of Tucson. 

Just this November, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey wrote an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star spotlighting Tucson as one of the country’s newest tech hubs to emerge. Sen.Kyrsten Sinema highlighted the new AZ Forge Business Innovation Hub in downtown Tucson (opening spring 2020) as the next step to establishing an innovation district in the urban core connecting the university and community to entrepreneurs. And, the 2019 TENWEST Impact Festival kicked off with then-Mayor Jonathan Rothschild’s curated “Building Innovative Cities Conference,” bringing mayors from around the country to Tucson to discuss how to foster a smart, innovative city. 

It was this TENWEST event that spurred Tucson’s young professionals to curate ENGAGE on Friday, Nov. 22. It was a semi-annual deep dive convening young professionals from around the city to address key community issues. This time the focus was on how professionals aged 21 to 45 can catalyze innovation districts and the entrepreneurial economy in Tucson, as well as of most concern and interest to this demographic.

One thing we do know is that to make Tucson “America’s next tech heavyweight,” as Ducey said, it will take a young workforce that is engaged in and attracted to the city. 

This year’s ENGAGE event featured an organizing team made up of four organizations, catalyzed by Tucson Young Professionals earlier in 2019, including the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, Startup Tucson and the International City/County Management Association University of Arizona Chapter. Supported by the University of Arizona Center for Innovation and Tech Parks Arizona, the Southern Arizona Leadership Council and the Center for the Future of Arizona, ENGAGE brought together over 50 young professionals along with key leaders and influencers from diverse industries and backgrounds to provide insight on important areas of Tucson’s innovation economy, what aspects impact young professionals the most, and what areas we should work on as a network.

While Tucson has begun to converge around specific industries that provide it a competitive advantage and some of the needed infrastructure for innovation, Tucson’s young professionals expressed that more work needs to be done to ensure the best possible present and future. 

There is still a need for more funding for entrepreneurship, but when asked how to build an innovative city, core underlying issues dominated the discussion. Also discussed was the need to make sure that, as Tucson grows, affordability and cost of living don’t skyrocket, that wages keep up with growth, and that jobs are grown, both in and out of the innovation economy, so there is a critical mass of people who can help build an innovative city. 

Common issues like transportation infrastructure and the need for greater density and proximity to fuel innovation came up as well. 

In the end, Tucson’s young professionals landed on a few areas they could drive change around: the need for a better city and ecosystem, storytelling and branding, the need to integrate an innovation district into Tucson’s upcoming General Plan and the need for Tucson to continue building diversity and inclusion into this sector.  

Joshua Polacheck is a member of The Advocacy Committee. Zach Yentzer is the executive director of Tucson Young Professionals.