Tucson is not a slick, corporate city.
A new MarketWatch report, "Top Cities for Business Growth 2012," plants Tucson in the bottom 10. While it's not surprising, it should be seen as a sign to shake up the city's image, leaders say.
"The county and city are aware of it and working on it," said Mike Holmes, executive director of Imagine Greater Tucson, noting that government officials are working to streamline regulations and create incentive packages for recruiting new businesses.
Our biggest problem, Holmes said, is the inability to retain young professionals graduating from the University of Arizona.
"The environment we've built is not friendly to the young professional generation," he said. "The 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds spent a good chunk of time strapped to the back seat of a minivan. They don't like to drive" and want to ability to walk, bicycle or have modern public transportation.
The city is not yet equipped to accommodate an urban lifestyle and living here requires a car to get around, Holmes said.
"We're going to have to live with the sprawl that we have, but a little bit of vertical development along our major thoroughfares would be a good start," he said. "That doesn't mean high-rises everywhere, but it does mean taking up those empty lots."
Among the considerations for MarketWatch's ranking is the number of Tucson-based companies on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq.
UNS Energy Corp. is the only local company on the NYSE. In 2012, Providence Service Corp. was listed on Nasdaq. A second Nasdaq company is opening in Tucson this year, Accelerate Diagnostics.
Other methodology used to compile MarketWatch's rankings included data on regional business climates such as number of jobs and college degrees measured against population.
Austin, Texas ranked as the No. 1 city for business growth.
Joining Tucson in the bottom 10 were six California cities, including Stockton and Modesto.
MarketWatch's report said of Tucson: "Nearby Phoenix seems to drain all the economic energy from the state. But Tucson is primarily a university/military town. It ranks in the top fifth in patents, and is in the top half in education level and unemployment rate."
Retain young professionals
David Plane, a University of Arizona professor of geography and urban development, agrees that Tucson needs to do a better job of recruiting and retaining young professionals, but doesn't believe the city should try to become a corporate Mecca.
"It's a shame that our kids move away," he said. "But a lot of us enjoy Tucson because it's not a slick, corporate place. We're a funky younger sister."
Living in the "urban shadow" of Phoenix impacts Tucson because the "something bigger" is nearby, Plane said, such as Sky Harbor Airport.
Tucson's biggest employers are in the public sector - the University of Arizona and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base - and the largest private employer - Raytheon Missile Systems - depends on government contracts.
"Our economic base has never featured a corporate presence," Plane said.
On top of that, the population is mixed with retired and less-educated residents and a high level of poverty, he said.
"The biggest thing Tucson has going for it is the natural environment," Plane said. "Preserving that amenity is crucial."
Tucson is one of those cities that often appears on these sorts of lists for better or worse, the mayor said.
"For every list that says Tucson doesn't do something well, there's a list that says we do something well," Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said. "Having said that, we know we need to attract more business and talk about what we can do better."
He agreed that preserving outdoor activities is crucial.
"We need to be attracting people who want to get out and hike and bike. People who like culture and history," Rothschild said. "Not people who are coming to see the old West."
Moving away from the dusty cowboy image means thinking as a region, especially with neighboring Sonora, he said.
"We're beginning to create synergy around our trade with Mexico and making Sonora and Southern Arizona an economic region. People are getting it," Rothschild said. "We're not going to be able to be all things to all people. As a community we need to decide what we want to be."
Imagine Greater Tucson, the nonprofit organization that was created to seek community input and create a vision of what Tucson should look like in the future, is on board with Rothschild's vision of building a trade economy.
"We're one of the few truly international cities in the U.S.," Holmes said. "We should absolutely be building on that.
"We're no longer a big town, we're a city," he said. "Our political structure just hasn't caught up to that yet."
Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at email@example.com or 573-4232.