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Downtown Tucson’s Future: COVID brings trouble, and opportunity

Building boom but culture at risk
Posted at 2:45 PM, Dec 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-25 10:46:00-05

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — COVID 19 has whiplashed Tucson’s downtown two different ways. It’s made companies want to come to Tucson from larger, more densely packed cities---but it’s threatening some of the downtown culture that made Tucson attractive.

Even with a pandemic, there’s a building boom in downtown Tucson. A new Doubletree Hotel growing out of the Tucson Convention Center is set to open in January. The Rio Nuevo Downtown Development District has put 70 Million dollars into modernizing TCC including adapting it to host the partly virtual events expected post-COVID. Rio Nuevo Chairman Fletcher McCusker says it’s not just Rio Nuevo investing in downtown’s future.

“So we're seeing a lot of people from outside are now making huge bets on what Tucson is going to look like post-pandemic,” he said.

McCusker says Dallas investors are behind a new hotel near the cathedral.

Boston investors are backing a 20-story office, retail and residential high rise at 75 East Broadway.

Scottsdale investors are converting part of the One South Church building into a luxury hotel.

McCusker says, “As people look to get out of these plague big cities, they're looking into places like Tucson and Charleston that are more dispersed and still have a great quality of life, but don't have some contagious factors that you see in these big urban environments, and it just happened to pay off for us right now.”

But COVID is suppressing some of the culture that made Tucson attractive. Restaurants are closing. Signature venues like the Fox Theater are in hibernation waiting for the day when the shows can go on again---perhaps as far as a year in the future.

McCusker says landlords are giving business tenants breaks on rent to help them survive. Nonprofits like the Fox are looking to the generosity of people who love the old theater.

“They're really looking at their donor base charitable giving. It's been up. The Fox had a really nice virtual gala. They historically do their gala every November while they couldn't do it. So they did one virtually and they raised almost as much money in that as they would in a physical event. So people are trying to find new ways to create revenue to create interest to survive.”

McCusker says the COVID slump has hurt Rio Nuevo. Its ability to stimulate downtown depends on money from sales tax and sales have slumped drastically since COVID hit. He hopes people will do all they can to support downtown businesses so they can survive until the pandemic lifts---maybe sometime this summer.