While nobody was looking, downtown Tucson underwent a striking renaissance in the past three years, adding up to $120 million in private investment – with another $120 million in student housing projects in the pipeline.
There’s the new six-story Martin Luther King Jr. Apartments; UniSource Energy’s nine-story headquarters taking shape; the modern streetcar trending toward reality with the $63 million federal TIGER grant; a slew of new restaurants along Congress Street; the extraordinary transformation on Broadway. And then you have Fletcher.”
That would be Fletcher McCusker, CEO at Providence Service Corp., the one man more than any other repeatedly sparking new embers for the downtown renaissance.
Steve Lynn has watched it all and himself been an active player as a UniSource executive and the architect behind the creations of the Downtown Tucson Partnership and Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities.
“All of that taken together has been enough of a momentum changer, I think, for a lot of things to happen,” Lynn, vice president and chief customer officer at UniSource Energy/Tucson Electric Power, said of new developments.
Among them: iconic Tucson names including Janos Wilder, Buffalo Exchange, Madden Media, Providence Service and Sonoran Institute have committed to downtown.
Why now, in the middle of the worst economy since the Great Depression? It’s logical that the worst economy has made downtown real estate affordable for entrepreneurs small and big, scrappy and refined. But it goes beyond that.
“Downtown real estate hasn’t gotten cheaper,” insisted Buzz Isaacson, a Coldwell Banker broker and downtown’s commercial real estate guru. “It’s all leadership. What happened is leadership with money showed up. The leadership with money created the space.”
So why didn’t this happen a decade ago?
“Five years ago, everybody expected Rio Nuevo to do something,” McCusker said. “The irony of their failure is the private sector had to step up.”
The defining moment when downtown revitalization decisively shifted from Rio Nuevo to the private sector may have been when Madden Media bought the city-owned, triangle-shaped MacArthur building on East Toole Avenue in 2008. Madden, with about 70 employees, was the first large suburban company to plant its flag downtown in 2009.
“The vibe downtown is very exciting right now. The place is abuzz with workers and construction,” Madden Media CEO Kevin Madden said.
Madden, in turn, convinced a reluctant McCusker and his wary Providence Service Corp. people that downtown was the place to be. Since then, McCusker has become downtown’s undisputed cheerleader, pretty much the driving force to get Buffalo Exchange, the Sonoran Institute and Imago Dei Middle School to move downtown.
“Fletcher is the band director at this point,” Madden said.
McCusker leased 64 E. Broadway from Peach Properties to relocate his 35-person headquarters staff in May 2010. He also leased the adjoining 50 E. Broadway from Peach, and in July 2010 he bought the neighboring 44 E. Broadway.
This half-block complex will eventually house 100 Providence employees, the Sonoran Institute, the Southern Arizona Green Chamber of Commerce and six residential condos.
“It’s providential,” McCusker said. “These are things that fell our way. These buildings became available.”
Providence dove whole hog into the downtown environment, launching the monthly 2nd Saturdays Downtown street festival just after moving in. And McCusker prodded employees to become members of downtown entities such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Fox Theatre and the Children’s Museum Tucson.
This downtown renaissance is a deeply textured phenomenon, involving building new towers; restoring century-old structures; serial entrepreneurs who’ve given downtown two or three establishments; small and big businesses; night clubs, theaters, art museums; some apartment housing, and, most notably, a string of popular restaurants that did not exist before 2008.
“We’re so much farther along than we anticipated,” said Michael Keith, chief executive of the Downtown Tucson Partnership and builder of downtown infill housing. “This has virtually happened overnight. This has caught a lot of people by surprise.”
The downtown core is ridiculously small, built as a commerce center for 5,000 residents a century ago and never expanded, thanks to the railroad tracks at Tucson’s eastern extreme at that time.
“People realize when you take a bird’s eye view, there’s not a lot of space,” said Michael Laatsch, acquisition and asset manager for Holualoa Companies, which bought the Pioneer Building in 2005 and the U.S. Bank building in 2004. “The forward-looking people saw the potential.”
This has also created a true downtown community, where many of the players got to know each other and collaborate.
“I go to O2 Modern Fitness once a day to spin. I go to Xoom Juice twice a day,” said Kade Mislinski, who just opened HUB Restaurant & Ice Creamery. “There’s such a community. Janos and Suzana (Davila at Café Poca Cosa) come over and talk to my staff.”Janos Wilder returned downtown in October 2010 with DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails. “There’s a camaraderie” among restaurateurs, he said. “I’ve always found that working with these guys that are competitive, we also have the sense of the whole.”
Ari Shapiro, owner of Xoom Juice at One North Fifth, spells out the role small business plays downtown.
“More people are going to Xoom, Yoga Oasis or HUB. The big stuff, TEP, Providence, they create the skeletal structure, while small business is the blood that runs through it,’’ said Shapiro, who jointly developed a Yoga Smoothie with Yoga Oasis next door.
Richard and Shana Oseran are veteran diehards of downtown revitalization. They bought Hotel Congress in 1984, and weathered decades of downtown decline, while winning national media plaudits.
“It enriched us not in financial terms but in cultural ways,” Richard Oseran said.
They could easily have stuck with Hotel Congress, but the Oserans took a look across the street and expanded into The Historic Depot with Maynards Market & Kitchen.
“In 2007, we just started getting the feeling if we didn’t do it, it just wouldn’t get done,” Oseran said.
Melanie Morrison, co-owner of MEB Management Services, moved her apartment management company onto Congress Street in December 2008.
“So much has happened since we moved in,” Morrison said. “I can just look out my office and see The Screening Room marquee, the new MLK building and Empire Pizza, which is great.”
The Screening Room took part in the city’s Façade Improvement Program to install a two-faced marquee that extends over the sidewalk. Attendance has jumped 30 percent because of the marquee, and all sorts of groups want to do events there, said Mia Schnaible, marketing and development director.
“Two years ago our block was dead. Now our block is just jumping,” Schnaible said. “If you haven’t been downtown in the last two years, you won’t recognize it. Everywhere you look there’s something exciting going on.”