With more companies choosing to relocate or expand into Arizona, the Town of Oro Valley is determined to distinguish itself as the place where executives want to set up shop.
Southern Arizona in particular has “awoken from the great nightmare that was the Great Recession,” according to Joe Snell, president and CEO of Sun Corridor, Inc. His regional economic development organization works to attract high-paying employers from across the nation. They had a hand in bringing Amazon, Caterpillar and other large companies to the region.
“No city got hit worse than Tucson,” Snell said of the market crash in 2008. At last Wednesday’s council meeting, he told council members the local economy had an over reliance on home-building and tourism, which lacked diversity.
As a result, a huge marketing effort was undertaken to make Southern Arizona appealing on a national scale. Oro Valley is now in a similar situation. The town is 85 percent built out and is made up of mostly residential subdivisions. With the number of developable acres of commercial land dwindling, the town could potentially lose new businesses to nearby Marana or elsewhere in the Greater Tucson Metro area.
“We live in a world where perceptions are reality,” said Snell, who is also an Oro Valley resident. “We are not thought of as a business center.”
He said the trick is convincing the country’s 400 site selectors that Southern Arizona—and Oro Valley in particular—is a good market, because the site selectors drive 90 percent of all business relocation or expansion decisions. Sun Corridor representatives fly across the country to meet with these individuals and market Southern Arizona’s assets directly to them.
Since Oro Valley is a member of the Sun Corridor group, those representatives are actively trying to get compatible businesses to come here. Town Manager Mary Jacobs also sits on the organization’s board of directors.
“The reality is site selectors are important, we’re hosting them all the time and we listen to what they say,” Snell said.
In the last several years, Sun Corridor has contributed to 168 companies that either relocated or expanded into this region, which generated 50,000 new jobs and $24.75 billion in economic impact.
Sun Corridor has received feedback from site selectors about Oro Valley. The most frequent critique is the low amount of developable commercial land and spec buildings. There’s only about 200 acres of land zoned for commercial or industrial park purposes.
Snell said many appealing companies want to move into a space within six to eight months. If a city or town has to build that structure from the ground up, it takes much longer.
“The fact that it takes more time to go through permit reviews, zoning, and those kinds of things, is a negative,” said John Moffatt, director of Pima County’s economic development department. “It only took us four and a half days to review plans for the Amazon distribution center.”
Moffatt joined Snell at the council meeting to help describe how Oro Valley can improve its chances of drawing companies in.
Both agree that Oro Valley is the place people want to live, but it’s not the place where many people can work because of the lack of opportunity. They strongly suggest the town become more aggressive with acquiring commercial land, and market the currently vacant buildings as new opportunities.
“If you want some of these companies to come, you’ve got to have space for them,” Moffatt said.
These suggestions are in line with what the town’s community and economic development director, JJ Johnston, has been saying for a long time. He frequently notes that 13,000 Oro Valley residents leave the town boundaries every day to go work elsewhere. He’s made it his mission to reverse this statistic.
“Mary (Jacobs) and I are asking the council to consider ways to find new commercially viable locations to add to our portfolio so we can get beyond 200 acres,” Johnston said. “I hope that for the 200 remaining, we don’t convert those to more housing projects because there’s plenty of land for housing development in Oro Valley right now.”
The council is currently reviewing a plan for annexation that includes State Trust land on Tangerine Road. Johnston said it will be several more months before they make a determination to annex or not.
“Mayor Winfield has said we want to target properties that already have commercially viable projects on them but they are in unincorporated Pima County,” Johnston said. “It would be mutually beneficial to consider locations like that.”
At Innovation Park, where biotech companies have began to populate the area, the new Oro Valley Innovation Labs is expected to begin construction within the next two to three months, Johnston said.
That project will be done in partnership with the University of Arizona with a focus on developing biomedical startups businesses. Their first building will be 4,000 square feet, and a number of companies have already expressed interest in the property.
If one of those future businesses wants to expand their operation, Johnston said there’s already more than 120 acres available within Innovation Park to accommodate for that. He believes that Sun Corridor could help fill those offices and laboratories, once they’re built.
“Sun Corridor only deals with primary employers, so we want the best relationship possible,” Johnston said. “When one vice president calls and says ‘a company needs 100,000 square feet, what do you have?’ We ought to have up-to-date information about our buildings, sites, workforce and our ability to be responsive to their needs. It’s so important that we become more assertive in the marketplace.”
The town council approved their Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy in March, but Johnston plans to present a modified version to the council on July 31. Town staff have shrunk down the original 19-page report and focused in on certain aspects, based on some direction given from council.