The Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities (TREO) organization has found itself in the public eye following a leadership exchange meeting to San Diego in May.

It was on that trip that Tucson Councilman Paul Cunningham allegedly made inappropriate remarks to at least one city official, raising some concerns over the integrity of the trip.

Oro Valley Mayor Satish Hiremath said Cunningham’s behavior is not reflective of Oro Valley’s relationship with TREO.

“As elected officials, we feel the responsibility for everyone in our jurisdiction,” he said. “This issue is one for (Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild) and the city of Tucson, and that’s where it begins and ends.”

For Oro Valley, which sent two councilmembers, Joe Hornat and Lou Waters, to the San Diego trip, discussions on TREO have increased, and are expected to climax on June 20 when Town staff requests $41,011 from council to continue funding the organization.

Regarding the trip, several questions were raised in a June 6 meeting by residents. Questions centered around how the trip was funded, why San Diego was chosen as the destination, and how the Town benefited?

Oro Valley Town Manager Greg Caton addressed those questions in a later interview.

“Through our financial participation agreement with TREO, one councilmember were paid for with TREO funding, and the other the Town picked up,” said Caton.

According to Caton, the total cost to the Town was $1,750, paid for out of the Bed Tax Fund.

“These were funds in large part paid for by visitors to the community, and we reutilized that money for tourism-related purposes,” said Caton.

Caton said the Tucson region has a lot to learn from San Diego, which is one of the reasons the destination was selected.

“When you look at a place like San Diego, it’s had many years of economic development initiatives,” he said. “What we need to learn as a region is what they did to get on that course. There are lessons to be learned in communities doing what we want to emulate. It’s not uncommon to take trips of these types to learn the best practices of other communities.”

Waters, who will deliver remarks about the trip at the June 20 council meeting, said San Diego and Tucson have many similarities, making the trip relevant and valuable.

Waters pointed out that like Tucson, San Diego is a border town to Mexico, currently reconstructing its downtown area, and has a big focus on the biotech industry. Additionally, San Diego managed to overcome near-bankruptcy to become a thriving, business friendly community in California, a place Waters said has a reputation for being business unfriendly.

“San Diego’s resurgence has surprised even California,” said Waters. “We looked at how the city managed to do what it did considering its struggles.”

Waters, who sits on the Mexico Trade Coalition Group with Hornat, said one major firm in Sonora, Mexico has already shown interest in a business agreement with the Town as a result of the trip.

Though some residents have argued TREO fails to provide Oro Valley any direct benefits, Hiremath disagrees, and pointed out one specific example.

“We spend one dollar per capita, contributing $41,011 to TREO,” said Hiremath. “The deal TREO got us with Roche/Ventana far eclipses $41,011. If TREO had not been at the table during those discussions, the deal would have never happened.”

The expansion of Roche/Ventana Medical Systems was responsible for the creation of about 500 jobs, according to Caton.

Hiremath added that Raytheon, one of Southern Arizona’s largest employers, has Chief Financial Executive Steve Eggen sitting on TREO’s board of directors.

“It’s frustrating to see business leaders buying into TREO, yet you have elected officials and residents criticizing it,” said Hiremath.

According to Laura Shaw, TREO’s Sr. Vice President of Marketing and Communications, about 3,000 families from Oro Valley are employed at Raytheon. Shaw said Raytheon is only one example of how regional economic development specifically affects Oro Valley.

“Tucson residents travel to Ventana Medical Systems (Oro Valley) to work every day,” she said. “Sanofi buys products and services not only in Oro Valley but across the region. Bioscience companies travel to the (University of Arizona) to collaborate with researchers. Marana residents work in Oro Valley. Patients come from many parts of the region to Northwest Medical Center. These real examples show that regional collaboration serves the desires of residents. We’re all intimately connected by our workplace.”

Shaw added that when city or county residents travel to Oro Valley to work, the Town sees the further benefits from tax dollars spent shopping, buying gas, or eating at restaurants.

Caton said without TREO, Oro Valley might be overlooked as a place to do business.

“TREO attracts businesses, and it is then our job to show them the benefits and assets of our community,” said Caton. “That’s how we separate ourselves from other communities. Without the larger umbrella company that is TREO, Oro Valley wouldn’t come up on the radar as often.”

New councilman Mike Zinkin more hesitant to voice support for TREO, but said he is in the process of further research.

“I haven’t made my mind up on it yet,” he said. “I’m pretty new at this. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and say TREO is a waste. Their quarterly reports don’t indicate Oro Valley is getting any bang for the buck, but that could just be the report, it doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t. I’m still in the process of figuring it out.”

In the June 6 council meeting, Zinkin requested more detailed reports be made available in the future.

Oro Valley’s neighboring community in the Town of Marana stopped funding TREO in 2008. Rodney Campbell, spokesman for the Town, said Marana wasn’t in a position to fully benefit from TREO’s services at the time.

“We didn’t have an economic development professional at the time, so it was hard to capitalize on TREO’s services,” he said. “We had to make tough cuts to achieve a balanced budget.”

Campbell said any future support of TREO would be a council decision.

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