Biz Bits

Chamber CEO Mike Varney talks about jobs, education and downtown

Mike Varney came to Tucson from Las Vegas in April 2011 to become the president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber. Here's a slightly edited Q&A with Varney about what he's learned about the community since he arrived here and what he thinks needs to change.

You've been here a year and a half now. What is the biggest challenge for the Tucson Metro Chamber in the year ahead?

To create more jobs. There's a sense on the part of some people that we only want certain jobs, we only want high-paying jobs. We're at 7.7 percent unemployment. Right now, we need jobs. We can get picky later. People talk down sometimes on certain types of jobs, service-sector jobs and so forth. That service-sector job, if it's available, might be a second paycheck in a house that needs a second paycheck. Right now, we're all about helping local companies expand. We're hoping we're successful in luring new companies.

What do you see as the biggest obstacles in Pima County to doing that?

We have to change the product we have to offer. Our streets need to be fixed. We've got to get TUSD off the front page. Wherever you stand on TUSD issues, and I'm not here to say I'm on one side or the other, but like SB 1070, it's grabbed the headlines. When many companies and many individuals talk about Tucson, the TUSD topic surfaces and it's generally unfavorable for the city, just as when 1070 surfaced, it was unfavorable publicity and we're trying very hard to turn around the image of Arizona with a much more progressive, comprehensive approach to immigration. We're hoping that TUSD can settle its matters so that the future publicity about TUSD is positive. We can't lay this one all on TUSD, but we've got a workforce problem here. We need to upgrade our education in this state and certainly in this community. We don't graduate one out of four of our high-school seniors. Somebody who doesn't graduate probably, sooner or later, ends up on the social rolls in some capacity. So we've got to graduate kids who have a running shot at earning a living for themselves. Right now, we're not doing a very good job of that. And if we're going to attract the 21st-century jobs, the biotech jobs, the high-tech jobs that everybody is talking about, we have to build a city that keeps more of this treasure that we have at the UA. We educate kids from all over the world here and then they go somewhere else to work. That workforce is here, but we have to have the jobs for it. So it's a chicken-and-egg kind of thing.

What are we doing right?

We've got political leaders in the townships and now we have a political leader in (Tucson Mayor) Jonathan Rothschild and the county administrator, Chuck Huckelberry, who are paying very close attention to our economic future. So the cast of characters has changed in a favorable way. The townships have had a history of being very pro-business and willing to grab opportunities that come their way. That kind of thinking has now permeated City Hall and the county. We have the tech park—a fantastic facility. It's got room to grow. Bruce Wright is doing a terrific job with that, as well as the bio park, which he also oversees. When that bio park is filled out, there is no question that Tucson will be a high-tech cluster for technology and biomedical research and development. The opportunities to create more trade with Mexico are bigger than any of us can define.

You collaborated recently with Huckelberry on a Joint Business Objectives agreement. There are critics who complain the county is anti-business. Is that a legitimate perception?

There are a lot of perceptions that the county isn't as welcoming to business. I've had people tell me that they don't feel they have an ally when they go to the county to conduct their business. We've had enough of that. And frankly, we've heard the same thing about the city, too. We've taken steps to address that—steps of good communication and heightened awareness and making some positive suggestions for change. The Joint Business Objectives agreement is a list of 10 things that the county commits to do for the business community. It has to do with their processes, their communications, their attitudes and so forth. They've been sincere that they want to make those things work. At the same time, we know that there are times that the county is doing its job and the person in the private sector isn't getting things done the way they should be done. So we asked the county, what are the top 10 things you expect from the business community? And the county put together its list. So if the private sector does what it's supposed to do and the county does what it's stated it will do, business should be a lot easier to conduct. We're working on a similar agreement with the city of Tucson.

How important is downtown to the city's future and do you think it's moving on the right track?

It's enormously important, as it is to every city. We're a metro area of a million people and we should have a downtown that is a magnet. It's where we should find our arts, our culture, our entertainment, our restaurants. There should be that downtown hub of excitement and culture and arts that every decent-sized city should have. I think the changes that have been made to the composition of the Rio Nuevo board have been steps in the right direction. I think the mayor and the city have had very productive discussions as of late over the Rio Nuevo matters. They're tremendously contentious, they're tremendously complicated, they're tremendously expensive. I really am hopeful they're on the verge of an agreement. There's already a lot of small business coming into downtown. I really am hopeful that if we get some iconic developments with some big frames down there, that it will spur even more interest for companies to come down there.