Tucson’s Shortage Of Capital And What To Do About It

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The Tucson metropolis has a shortage of the three kinds of capital that bring prosperity, quality of life, and civic-mindedness to a community: financial capital, social capital, and human capital.

This paper describes each kind of capital, details what has caused the shortages of each kind, acknowledges what has been done so far to ease the shortages, and suggests how to grow more capital.

Financial capital is the homegrown or external wealth available for investments in local businesses, economic revitalization, public works, and government services.

The City of Tucson, which makes up slightly more than half of the metro population, is poor. It has a poverty rate that is twice the national average and a median household income that is three-fourths of the national median.

The surrounding Pima County is wealthier but still has a poverty rate that is four percentage points higher than the national average and a median household income that is a few thousand dollars below the national median household income.

The good news is that in spite of low incomes in Tucson, public and private capital is being invested to revitalize downtown Tucson—which some believe is a waste of precious capital, a perspective not shared by this writer.  Also, venture capital has been invested in some businesses, and a few national corporations are establishing facilities in the metropolis, such as Caterpillar. It’s a start. Other good news is that wealthy people are fleeing California with their capital for locales with lower housing costs and taxes, which should benefit metro Tucson over time.


Still, for the time being, local investments pale in comparison to the billions that Intel invested in plants in the Phoenix suburbs of Chandler and Queen Creek, to the billion that Google is investing in a data center in Mesa, or the hundreds of millions that Nike is investing in a new manufacturing facility in Goodyear. It’s as if Tucson takes a half-step forward while Phoenix and other cities take two steps forward.

At the same time, the City of Tucson and Pima County have deferred the maintenance of roads and parks for so long that it will take an estimated billion dollars to bring them up to standard. That’s not counting what it would take to maintain and upgrade landscaping along roadways, to sweep streets more frequently, and to enforce building codes and sign regulations, so that first impressions of the metropolis are positive instead of negative and so that residents can have pride in the community.  In this way, more companies will want to locate to the metropolis and more residents will stay here instead of adding to the high transient rate in the metro area by moving elsewhere.

Conditions in the county matter, because the county plays an outsized role in the metropolis. Unincorporated county comprises a whopping 36% of metro Tucson. Unfortunately, it is mostly an amorphous blob of disconnected residential neighborhoods, interspersed with strip malls, without a thriving business center, or a shining civic center that brings people together, or mixed-use developments of shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and condos, where people can work, play and live. As long as it remains unincorporated, the 36% will not have the amenities and services of a well-run municipality—the neighborhood parks, ballfields, community centers, and other attractions desired by corporate types and people with children.

To make matters worse, the unincorporated county is not a distant and largely unseen outermost ring of the metropolis, as unincorporated counties tend to be in most large metro areas. Rather, it is a noticeable innermost ring that encircles the City of Tucson and separates the city from a handful of wealthier bedroom communities, such as Oro Valley and Marana, neither of which has a quaint downtown or hip vibe, unlike the cities of Scottsdale and Tempe in metro Phoenix. It’s a poor reflection on the city and county that what makes Oro Valley and Marana desirable is that they are well-run and are not the city or the county.

When departing the City of Tucson by car, one leaves a poor and poorly-maintained city and enters a sprawling, poorly-maintained county. Together, the poor city and the soulless county make up 86% of the metropolis.

This odd municipal structure is one of the reasons why social capital is in short supply in the metropolis.

Social capital is the non-quantifiable value of a community’s pride, civicmindedness, common aspirations, mutual aid, volunteerism, and participation in local politics (not in an adversarial, partisan way, but with mutual respect and compromise).

It is difficult to think of an unincorporated county as a community. After all, when residents of unincorporated Pima County travel outside the metropolis and are asked by strangers where they’re from, they don’t say with pride, “I’m from unincorporated Pima County.”

It doesn’t help that there are many transients in the county and larger metropolis; that is, people who move to the area for a few years and then move elsewhere. Likewise, there are many winter residents who have second homes in the metro area and thus don’t have the same personal attachment to the metropolis that they do to their hometown. (In my neighborhood, half of the residents are gone for the summer.) It’s a similar story with the 35,000 students at the University of Arizona, most of whom are from elsewhere and move elsewhere after graduation. Military personnel at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base also move in and out of the metropolis.  Moreover, Tucson is a transit point for emigrants from Latin America, who create costs for the city as they pass through. And finally, the city has a higher than average percentage of renters, who, as national studies have shown, tend to have less community involvement than homeowners.

Then there is the political dysfunction of the city and county, both of which have been under de facto one-party rule for decades. The governing party happens to be the Democrat Party, but the problems inherent with one-party rule would still manifest themselves if the longtime governing party were the Republican Party. Excluded from policy-making, the party out of power sits on the sidelines and feels little responsibility for local conditions.

Exacerbating this problem is the fact that the City of Tucson is the only city in Arizona that holds partisan elections for mayor and city council members. And exacerbating it even more is the city election system of ward primaries and city-wide general elections, a system that further entrenches the ruling party.

For decades, the ruling party has been anti-big business and anti-development, which ironically, has resulted in the ugliest sprawl imaginable and in a high poverty rate among the very people the party professes to care about.

Presently, while local problems fester, the party expends energy and money on symbolic gestures about divisive national issues, such as the border wall and making Tucson a sanctuary city.

Fair or unfair, Democrats own the socioeconomic problems and conditions in both the city and county.

Crime is one symptom of a shortage of social capital, and the City of Tucson abounds with property crime, as evidenced by the ubiquitous security bars on the doors and windows of residences and businesses. Other symptoms in both the city and county are the unkempt conditions of private and public property, the proliferation of illegal and ugly signs and banners in front of businesses and along public rights-of-way (and even in front of churches and schools), and an abundance of abandoned shopping carts and litter.

This is not to suggest that there is an absence of individuals and organizations that are civic-minded and work hard at improving the metropolis. There are many churches, other nonprofits, neighborhood associations, civic organizations, and individual volunteers who help the poor and work behind the scenes at the zoo, the botanical gardens, the art museum, the Tucson Rodeo, the Tour de Tucson, and other attractions and venues.  Kudos to them.

However, this is to state emphatically that, as has been discussed herein, there are structural, cultural and political impediments to increasing social capital and making it more widespread.

Sadly, there are also impediments to increasing human capital.

Human capital is the sum-total of a population’s education, job skills, industriousness, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

The easiest to measure is education, so that will be the focus here.

First, the good news: The Tucson Unified School District’s University High School ranks in the top ten of all Arizona high schools, the two campuses of the Basis charter public schools rank near the top worldwide, and the Catalina Foothills School District has respectable test scores.

Now for the bad news, which is captured in the following table.  The table shows the scores from the state’s AzMERIT test for local school districts.  For comparison, scores for the Scottsdale Unified Schools District are included.

District Language Arts Math
Scottsdale 81 87
Catalina Foothills 68 68
Tanque Verde 57 55
Vail 59 66
Sahuarita 41 40
Amphi 41 39
Marana 37 36
Flowing Wells 33 36
TUSD 29 28
Sunnyside 23 27

The table speaks for itself.

Additional bad news is that only 75% of Latinos in the City of Tucson graduate from high school, and only 26.6% of Tucsonans over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, versus the 33.0% nationally and the 74.1% in Arlington County, Virginia, which is the location that Amazon chose for its second headquarters.

Of course, academic results correlate with family income: As a general rule, the wealthier a district, the higher the test scores—which is why it is so tragic that past political decisions have kept Tucson poorer than it otherwise would have been.

An aside: Johanna Haver, a Phoenix-based author and expert on teaching immigrants who don’t speak English, claims that TUSD is hurting students by holding onto the ineffective pedagogical theory of English as a Second Language instead of wholeheartedly adopting English Immersion. Her two books on the subject can be bought on Amazon.

In summary, the thesis of this commentary has been that metro Tucson has a shortage of financial capital, social capital, and human capital, a problem that is exacerbated by structural, cultural, and political issues unique to the metropolis.

What can be done?

First, the political and business establishment should continue the progress that has been made in revitalizing downtown Tucson, as the metropolis needs a vibrant center. Likewise, similar revitalization efforts should be extended to other parts of the city and to rundown parts of the county.

Second, municipalities and the county should support the strengthening of the region-wide organizations of the Regional Transportation Authority and the Pima Association of Governments, to minimize parochialism and to plan and coordinate initiatives that benefit the region as a whole.

The remaining ideas below will require visionary, inspirational leadership in government, industry, media, and academia, or they will be pie-in-the-sky notions. Models of such leadership are former Scottsdale Mayor Herb Drinkwater (RIP), who was instrumental in making Scottsdale what it is today; and Arizona State University President Michael Crow, who played a key role in revitalizing downtown Tempe and downtown Phoenix.

What could such leaders attempt to accomplish in metro Tucson? The following:

– Have a vision of what the metropolis could be and what it would look like in twenty years, and then sell the public on the vision and set goals for getting there.

– Bring inclusivity to city and county politics, so that the party out of power is at least listened to and doesn’t feel estranged.

– Convince voters in the unincorporated county and in adjoining municipalities that everyone would win if the unincorporated parts of the metropolis were incorporated into one or more cities—which, among other benefits, would bring additional state revenue-sharing funds and state road funds to the metropolis.

– Lead a “Make Tucson Beautiful” campaign to clean and beautify the city and county, provide support and seed money to groups of volunteers to aid in the campaign, and give public recognition and awards to businesses, homeowners and neighborhoods for demonstrating civic pride.

– In areas where the above fails, enforce property maintenance ordinances, sign regulations, and building codes. Have government lead by example by keeping public property and roads in excellent condition.

– Revise zoning laws to allow quality mixed-use development.

Of course, visionary leaders will have other ideas, as well as the charisma and leadership skills to sell the ideas and implement them.

I’m not even close to being that person, but I know that such people exist in Tucson. Let’s pray that more of them step forward.

Craig J. Cantoni

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