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Young entrepreneurs, modern streetcar boost downtown Tucson boom

As Local First Arizona gears up for its 10th annual Independents Week celebration June 26-July 5, the Downtown Tucson Partnership is pleased to say that more than 90 percent of downtown businesses are locally owned.

Caitlin Jensen
Caitlin Jensen

“I think that’s one of the things that truly makes downtown unique, the concentration of locally owned, interesting businesses — especially with so many owned by these young entrepreneurs who are really passionate about community, really want to be involved and really make it their life’s work to help make Tucson a better place,” says Caitlin Jensen, Downtown Tucson Partnership’s marketing and public relations manager. “You’ll find products and food and services that you cannot find anywhere else in the world.”

Jensen adds that in the past five years, more than 220 new businesses have opened downtown. “And that doesn’t include the Fourth Avenue/University area,” she says. “It’s just downtown proper.” The Downtown Tucson Partnership is helping to promote Independents Week, which includes a “Golden Coupon” for 20 percent off at participating local businesses statewide (download Golden Coupons at In Tucson, there is also a “Passport to Local Success” available on the LFA website and at participating businesses. Collect five passport stamps just for visiting local businesses (no purchase necessary) and be entered to win a variety of prizes, including gift certificates to local shops, restaurants and breweries, and the grand prize of a VIP summer staycation package from Hotel Congress.

Kimber Lanning
Kimber Lanning

Executive Director Kimber Lanning founded LFA, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to strengthening local economies by supporting and celebrating local businesses, in 2003. The organization has grown tremendously and now has 2,750 members statewide — 475 of them in greater Tucson. “We are the largest local business coalition in the country today,” says Lanning.

Growth has been particularly strong since 2010, when LFA had two employees, she says. Today it has 16 and will soon be hiring an additional staff member for the Tucson office.

LFA has helped affect policy, she says, from a change in how the City of Phoenix procures goods and services, which resulted in an extra $20 million in local business, to the City of Tucson’s community banking initiative, in which the city moved some deposits from large banks to community banks that are more apt to give loans to local businesses, including $5 million moved to Alliance Bank of Arizona in 2013, which spurred $9 million in local loans.

LFA’s influence also registers culturally, says Lanning, who sees businesses displaying LFA window stickers everywhere. She’s noticed that local journalists, who might once have merely said “available on Amazon,” now make a point of citing local stores where people can find the latest trends.

Another huge influence on downtown Tucson has been the modern streetcar, says Jensen of the Downtown Tucson Partnership.

The modern streetcar opened for service on July 25, 2014 and had its millionth rider on May 21. Its 3.9-mile route links five districts: the University of Arizona, Main Gate Square, Fourth Avenue, Downtown and the Mercado.

“We’re actually partnering with Fourth Avenue, Main Gate and the Mercado on a lot more projects now. The streetcar really connects us. It’s fabulous — all of the districts have their own different flavors,” says Jensen.

Kurt Tallis
Kurt Tallis

Kurt Tallis, the marketing and event director for the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association, concurs. “The really cool part of it, and what we’re really working hard at, is the five different districts that the streetcar goes through — together we make strength,” he says.

Prior to the streetcar, he says, it was hard for people to get to the Mercado, which is west of the freeway. Downtown was separated from Fourth Avenue by the train tracks and Main Gate and the University district were completely separate. Linking the districts “really makes it exciting for the visitor.”

The overall revitalization of downtown “has certainly helped Fourth Avenue, but Fourth Ave. has always been healthy,” says Tallis.

Fourth Avenue merchants “have always taken care of their own needs,” he adds, explaining that the City of Tucson doesn’t pick up garbage, change light bulbs or get rid of graffiti on Fourth Avenue – the Merchants Association does all of that, with funds raised from the twice yearly Fourth Avenue Street Fair.

“The reason we do that is we’re small business. We don’t wait for government and never have,” he says. Since the city doesn’t collect taxes for such services, landlords are not subject to tax increases that would be passed along to tenants as higher rent.

But Fourth Avenue merchants do raise money for the city via sales tax. “We’re raising jobs. Think of the money that’s spent in the stores during street fair — that’s a big chunk of money,” says Tallis. “It’s a win-win-win-win-win situation, in that we need street fair to pay the bills, but because we do street fair, we raise tax money for our city, we make money for our merchants, we make money for the artists, we employ musicians, we employ homeless people to take out the garbage – everybody’s winning.”

Jensen also celebrates downtown’s “interconnectivity,” with merchants favoring collaboration over competition. “Street Tacos will serve beer from three of the downtown breweries. The different breweries will send customers to the other breweries [saying], ‘Hey, go check them out, they’re cool too.’”