Tucson metro chamber president & CEO Mike Varney recently announced he'd be stepping down at six years leading the region's largest chamber. Varney sat down for an interview on the televised edition of Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel. This Q&A is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
You hear a lot about how the county and the city are not business-friendly. Reputations take a long time to turn around. Do you think that is turning around?
You used to hear that a lot. Don't really hear that so much anymore. We've got a city and a county government that are now, in my opinion, embracing economic development, embracing the need to make sure that job creators get a chance to create jobs. Helping them in a number of different ways, with incentives and high levels of cooperation. So that anti-business, that not-business-friendly mantra is something that I just don't hear much anymore.
You've been a big advocate for better schools and better education. What do you think the state needs to do improve education here?
Solve their own riddle. A couple of years ago, when Gov. Ducey was here in Tucson, he and I had a little sidebar conversation after the announcement of Uber's decision to partner with the UA on autonomous cars. And the governor said something that I remember to this day and probably always will remember. And that is that economic development is his highest priority. He even went so far as to say that if we can fire up the state's economy, it solves almost all of his other problems. And I buy into that. Let's rev up our state economy. To rev up our state economy, we're going to have to a very qualified workforce to do that. And the pipeline for a qualified workforce is education. I want to see the day that the Legislature, the governor and people around the state unite behind a plan to pay our teachers a little bit more or a lot more. We are at an embarrassingly low level of teacher pay, our teacher retention is not where we want it to be, schools need repairs, they need capital improvements. So we're going to have to, at some point in time, make a big commitment to education if we're going to have the workforce that today's businesses need to either move here or to expand here.
You were a big supporter of former TUSD superintendent HT Sanchez, who was forced out by the new majority on the TUSD board. Was that a disappointment to you?
Big disappointment. It's not just the disappointment of losing a wonderful school superintendent in HT Sanchez. If you look back, the average tenure of school superintendents over the last 20 years here in Tucson has been two-and-a-half years. So whether it's HT Sanchez or any other school superintendent, it's just that—for whatever reason—the position becomes way too politicized and it's too uncomfortable for these qualified, PhD-holding executives to run a school district. And we've got to get past that.
What does the region have to do to continue to thrive economically?
I hope that the cooperation between the public sector and the private sector continues or even escalates. Those people who take kind of a purist approach to economic development, that it's only up to the private sector to grow the economy are living in yesterday's dream world. We are competing against cities and regions and states all across the country and, frankly, around the world for jobs and for job creators. We can't go into that gunfight with a knife and expect to survive and thrive. The first thing we need to do is make sure we are all working together cooperatively to make sure that we are creating jobs and growing our local company and being attractive to companies that might want to come to Tucson. We have beautiful weather. We did a poll here a couple of years ago. We asked local businesses what they liked most about doing business in our area and what they liked least. This was back in 2014, before the needle really started to move, in my opinion. Local businessmen said they liked the weather and they liked doing business with people from Southern Arizona. That we are just good people and we are good neighbors and it's a joy to do business here in Southern Arizona. The two big knocks were the interface with the public sector, which they thought—rightfully—could be grossly improved, and road and infrastructure, which was almost in a tie with the perception of the public sector.
You bring up the roads. The Metro Chamber has endorsed Prop 101, which would increase the sales tax in the city of Tucson by a half-cent to fix roads and fund capital improvements for the police and fire departments. Why should folks go out and vote for that?
It depends on what kind of community we want to have. The tax rate that the city is proposing brings us up to pretty much the norm for cities around the state. So it's not like we're asking to be overtaxed. We've just got to decide what kind of community do we want. Do we want a community that wants nice roads? You can't hide a bad road. So when companies come here to look at our community to think about maybe going into business here or moving here, you can't hide that road. So we need to make sure that our infrastructure is up to speed. We need first-rate public-safety vehicles. The Tucson Metro Chamber is solidly behind Prop 101.