Monday, July 20, 2015

Why no retail in Vail? - Part 1

Mercado Del Lago
Coming 2009!
This is a question that everyone who lives in Vail asks at some point.  "Why is there not more retail in Vail"?  It is a great question.

My intention is to answer this question in a series of posts, but first, let's understand the basics.

There is no Vail.  Vail is an old train stop of the Southern Pacific Railroad.  The land was donated by Walter (or was it Edward) Vail in the late 1800s.  So the community was named after him.  This was years before Arizona became a state.  Over the next half century, Vail grew a little bit - even adding a school and a post office.  But Vail is not a town or a city.  It is simply unincorporated land in Pima County.

It's hard, really, to say what the population of Vail is.  If you consider the population within the Vail School District, including those who lives in Rita Ranch and Corona de Tucson, the population is around 40,000-50,000 people.  If you drew a circle around the housing clusters surrounding Rancho del Lago the population drops to around 10,000-15,000.

Why consider population?  Because population typically drives retail. If you look at any other community with a population of  10,000 you will find it supports much more retail that Vail.

Safeway, McDonald's
Look at Van Horn Texas.  The population of Van Horn Texas (along I-10, like Vail) is around 2,000 people.  Yet in Van Horn you find at least 10 restaurants, 10 hotels, five gas stations, and other retail.  Why is that??  Because with the I-10 traffic and the native population, this amount of development can be supported.  And if you perform this exercise at every other location in every other small town across the United States, you will find similar results.

The fact is any other community with 10,000-15,000 people would be brimming with development.  Examples in Phoenix would be Verrado or Anthem.  Each of these communities are about the same age as Rancho del Lago and roughly the same population.  But they have thousands of square feet of retail.  We have none.  What gives???

Well, it all has to do with community identity.  You see, both Verrado and Anthem are identified as separate entities from the City of Phoenix.  These were built as separate communities.  They are operated as separate communities.  They have a local governance structure.  Anthem, while part of unincorporated Maricopa County, is governed by the "Anthem Community Council".  Verrado is unique because while it is in the town of Buckeye, Arizona, all the local administration of the community is performed by the Home-owner / developer association. In other words, these communities have a local quasi-government structure.

Why is this important?

Because retail establishments don't just view Vail in isolation.  They understand that Vail is part of the overall Tucson metropolitan area - so they are more cautious about building retail in Vail because it will compete with all of the other retail in east Tucson.  They don't understand that Vail is really separate from that.

And because chain retail stores are risk averse, without some sort of quasi-government structure, Vail is really just seen as a bedroom community of Tucson.  Chain retail stores would like to see all of the infill between Tucson and Vail be constructed before they would consider constructing in Vail.  It reduces their risk.  When the 2007 financial crisis hit, the risk became too great and the Safeway planned for 2009 stalled.  But at some point, the market will stabilize and maybe retail will come sooner than later.  For sure, when all of the land between Rita Ranch and Vail is filled with homes, retail in Vail will happen.

If Tucson builds a large retail center just west of Cienega High School as they have planned, then market competition will take over.  If Vail has no shopping, residents will shop in Tucson. Since Vail residents will pay taxes in Tucson and not receive any benefits, eventually there will be a strong push to become annexed into Tucson.

There is another approach.  Vail could develop its own governance structure.  It could be similar to Anthem's Council, or it could be a new re-purposing of the local home-owners associations or it could take on any number of forms.  With a structure in place, Vail could create a comprehensive plan and attract developers.   But without this political identity in place, Vail - by itself - will have to wait until chain retail stores are willing to take the risk or until the urban sprawl of Tucson reaches them.

I remember a public meeting put on by our own County Supervisor in the Spring of 2014 at the Rincon Valley Fire Station.  The question was asked, "What is Pima County doing to bring retail to Vail?"  And his answer?  "Sorry, that isn't my job".  This may sound wrong, but it is true.  That isn't his job.  Pima County is only really required to provide a minimal level of services.  If more is wanted than the minimal level, then Vail residents need to gather together to make it happen.

So that is why there is no retail in Vail.  Our current structure makes it difficult.

What about the other groups in Vail?  Can't they bring development here?

I think the Greater Vail Chamber, the Vail Community Action Board, the Greater Vail Civic League, or the Vail Historical Society or any of these other groups could try, but they are not politically in a position to advocate for Vail.  For a local governance to be truly effective it needs to be representative of all of Vail and speak for all of Vail.  It needs to be a community effort that speaks for the entire community and is accountable to the community.  These are great organizations, but they don't have the accountability to speak for all of Vail.

So why not just create a local "quasi-government"?

The truth is, it's difficult.  Several attempts have been made to incorporate.  A Community Council requires tremendous volunteer hours.  Many people in Vail moved here because they like the fact that it is rural, the taxes are low and there is a small government footprint. Increased government and taxes is a pretty hard sell.

Consider this one last thought.  When was the last time you went shopping?  When was the last time you went to the doctor?  When was the last time you went to a movie?  How far did you drive?  How much money and time did you spend in gas? Where did those taxes go?

Consider this. If all that time and money (and Tucson taxes) - instead went to creating a local government structure - would it be worth it?  Might it be cheaper?  Would you be happier?  Would Vail be a stronger community?

I will post again as to other, systemic reasons why retail is so difficult.

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