Eric Bergeson: Where is all that money coming from?
After a three-year absence from Tucson, I have been struck by the level of development, not on the city’s outer fringes, which stopped expanding with the recession of 2008, but in the downtown.
The streets of downtown Tucson were moribund the last time I visited. Only on New Year’s Eve, or some other special holiday, did they fill with revelers.
Today, the ground level is filled with bars, restaurants and art galleries.
Fourth Avenue, long the artistic, bohemian center of Tucson, has been repaved. New streetcars patrol the rail on the old thoroughfare between downtown and the University of Arizona.
New, new, new. Most of the old haunts have been remodeled.
A favorite Mexican restaurant has disappeared. An old general store is now also a micro-brewery.
On Sundays, I try to get out of town for a drive. It is a bad idea, because everybody else does it, too. But I ambled down towards the Mexico border to the artist’s enclave of Tubac, a town which, last time I visited, was a funky collection of gravel streets, dilapidated art galleries and restaurants of every level of fanciness, or none at all.
What a surprise. Tubac is now a mall. The warm climate allowed them to build a mall without a roof.
None of the more rugged restaurants are left. Only fancy-pants places with $16.95 lunch entrees remain.
Where is all this growth coming from?
I know that the 4th Avenue rail project used stimulus money. The University of Arizona also contributed to the neighborhood by building new dormitories.
Instead of putting the new dorms on campus, the University placed them behind the shops along 4th Avenue. The influx of students has made 4th Avenue bustle every night of the week.
The old crowd of homeless people, hippies, artists and professors has been embellished with college students, who, for all their clean-cut appearances, are a bit more rowdy.
“I am challenging you to a fight!” said a drunken student, pointing at me. I declined, as I haven’t been doing a lot of sparring lately and I didn’t want to break my bifocals.
He went on to the next potential combatant, a homeless man who didn’t respond. In the end, the kid had no takers amongst the mellow 4th Avenue old guard.
The new dorms have changed the neighborhood, and are part of a national spending boom by large universities to keep their students happy.
Modern students have cars. New ones. Modern students don’t want a bare tile dorm room with steel bunks and cinderblock walls. Modern students don’t want to be forced to eat dorm food.
So universities are borrowing billions in a battle to keep up with the other universities which are doing the same.
Will tuition ever go down? More to the point, will it ever stop rising? Not if universities are in hock for decades into the future.
We hear talk about the economy, how it is limping along, how nobody has money to spend, how our infrastructure is falling apart, how there is no longer a middle class.
And then you take a look at a city like Tucson, which seems, outwardly at least, to be booming.
Things are a little more grim in the suburbs, where home prices have only recently started to climb after the real estate crash of five years ago.
On the north edge of Tucson is a massive strip mall, built six years ago, which still sits empty. Large houses still don’t sell very fast, at least if the owners don’t want to take a loss.
Some expensive homes have been trashed. Others have been broken into and stripped of copper tubing.
Then you look at the railroad that passes through town, the main transcontinental line for the southern United States. Ten minutes don’t go by without another 110-car train.
Next to the railroad is Interstate 10, the United States’ southernmost coast-to-coast highway. It is wall-to-wall trucks, day and night.
I can see and hear both transportation arteries just over a mile away from my front porch.
Of course, most of the trains traveling through Tucson are loaded with containers coming from China, or cars from Japan or Korea. And most of the containers go back empty.
And yet we muddle on. The economic disaster everybody seems to feel is imminent never comes.
And if Tucson is any indication, North Dakota isn’t the only place in the country experiencing some growth.
But my question remains: Just where is all the money coming from?