Dave Perry

The facilitator at a recent, well-attended Oro Valley public forum asked the audience of perhaps 75 people how many had an Amazon Prime account.

Maybe 60 guests raised their hands.

As chamber president, my shoulders slumped a little bit. Our chamber works to promote the local economy. Amazon Prime, offering “fast, free shipping on more than 50 million eligible items” (if you can conceive of so many things) for $99 a year, is a large tributary to the flow of local retail dollars away from communities around the nation.

So be it. In Oro Valley, and beyond, we’re not going to dam the Amazon Basin. In fact, Greater Tucson is courting Amazon’s second headquarters, as it should.

What, then, do we do as a community to keep from being drained? What do we do to create the jobs and quality of life that attract companies and their employees, to maintain a healthy housing market, and to drive the retail and service sectors that help this place thrive?

A recent, beefy study on Oro Valley’s Main Streets Concept Plan, commissioned by the Town of Oro Valley and presented to the audience in November, shows there is plenty to be addressed.

Consider, for example, that more than 10 percent of Oro Valley’s office inventory is unoccupied. At the current leasing rate, it’ll be 5 years—let’s call it 2023, on the calendar—before that existing inventory is filled.

The fact we need to absorb 90,000 square feet of existing space doesn’t mean investors won’t build new office space. More is on the way; OneAZ Credit Union, as a good example, is going to build its Southern Arizona flagship at First and Oracle in Oro Valley next year. But anything to be built will have a dedicated tenant, or owner occupancy. There’s not likely to be speculative office space any time soon.

Our community’s retail picture has empty canvas as well. In the last 10 years, according to the study, Oro Valley doubled its retail space, adding more than 1 million square feet. Yet more than 160,000 square feet of it is empty. At a projected absorption rate of 30,000 feet a year, that’s 5 years—again, 2023-ish—before what we have is filled.

Compounding that volume is the future of “big box” retailers, now rowing upstream against the Amazon flow. Over the next 5 years, the study suggests, Oro Valley should prepare for “big box” retailers to leave. Who might be going? Well, take the grocery business. “Guess who” bought Whole Foods on Oro Valley’s doorstep at Ina and Oracle. Fry’s is expected to begin construction at the foot of SaddleBrooke Boulevard in 2018. Certainly the grocery business, as a big one, is going to experience volatility.

The study makes clear that “population density must be increased.” We need more people living in and near Oro Valley, and we need more of them to be younger, the people who are working and buying and building their lives. Yet Oro Valley is “one of the least affordable submarkets in the Tucson metro area to purchase either a new home or an existing home,” the study says. In 2016, Oro Valley new home and resale home prices were 60 percent and 44 percent higher, respectively, than comparative Pima County prices.

Of course, we want our home values to go up. But when that happens, the community’s “affordability” declines. As a result, our population ages. Us old folks spend less on goods, furniture and clothes and shoes. And we work less, requiring less office space.

To lure younger people, the study suggests we need more single-family attached, condominium and townhome-style housing. And, yes, curse if you must, we need more apartments. Oro Valley has added 782 apartment units to the mix these last several years, and they’re filling, those businesses tell us. Soon, more apartments will be proposed, appropriately in the Oracle Road corridor.

For the Oro Valley Main Streets effort to succeed, and more broadly for community well-being, “population density must be increased significantly,” the authors write. “This objective cannot be overstated.”

Population growth starts most fundamentally with jobs, capitalizing upon the anchors of Roche Tissue Diagnostics, Honeywell, Oro Valley Hospital, Icagen, Meggitt Securaplane, and, yes, Raytheon and Caterpillar to the south. More jobs mean more demand for office space, and for housing. More housing means a stronger retail sector. Retail follows rooftops. Rooftops follow jobs. Our work is cut out for us. Let’s get to it.

To read the Main Streets study, go to orovalleyaz.gov.

Dave Perry is president and CEO of the Greater Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce, and a 10-year resident of Oro Valley. He can be reached at dave@orovalleychamber.com.

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