Col. Tony Boone, who was formerly the Garrison Commander on Fort Huachuca, retired from the U.S. Army in 2017 and immediately stepped into his current role as economic development director for the City of Sierra Vista.
Boone sat down with the Herald/Review this week to discuss his current job and its inherent challenges, airport development, the city’s West End and much more.
Herald/Review: One thing you’ve undertaken since becoming the economic development director is to try to attract business to the Sierra Vista airport. Explain what’s happening there.
Tony Boone: Well, it goes back to the economic development framework that the council approved. So, there were six objectives, and one of the objectives that’s been talked about is: how do you maximize the municipal side of the airport? And so, of the six objectives, we’ve kind of carved them out amongst the staff. So when I say that it’s my “pet project,” that’s kind of where my client and I fall in from the economic development side.
The baseline of the airport is, the land that was deeded from Fort Huachuca to the city. We’ve got the terminal, we’ve got space there now — we’ve got about 13 acres that are undeveloped. It is, unfortunately, under a very large mountain — they’ve piled dirt and other things on that for quite some time. So, we’re in kind of a multi-step process with the intent to develop that land. One of the keys to developing the land is to get it cleared, because when a business wants to come in and build, they don’t want to go through six to nine months of moving dirt. It’s kind of hard to sell something you can’t see. So, right now, we’ve done an airport study — we’ve looked at it a couple different ways — and now we are doing, I call it the “engineering and construction document phase.” We’ve got a consultant in, they’re going to do geo-tech and look at what’s in the dirt. (They’re evaluating) how do we maximize as much of that land as we can? Because we’ve got some grade changes and what I’d call a culvert — we’ve got water runoff from the airfield.
But how do we set that up? Part of that is, one, to get the construction documents — how do you level it off, how do we move the dirt around? And then looking at utilities. And then, part of it will be a cost estimate of how much it’s going to cost to do all that work. So, that will allow us, realistically, a February/March time frame to come back to the mayor and council with: “To do this work next year, in the budget, this is the price tag that will go along with it.” And then the real intent — so, if we get through that step and we actually commit the money and we level the dirt — because we’ve got almost four acres of apron. We can park large aircraft on that side of the airport.
So, between the apron, which the city already owns, and then develop that land — really prepare the land to build, so that we now have a product to go sell to an aviation-related company that says, “Hey, we’ve got 13 acres. It’s prepared, you can come in and drop your 18 inches of concrete, or whatever they need, depending on what it is.” And then we can set up a very competitive land lease to bring in a company.
And, again, it goes back to: what resources and assets do we have, as a city? Access to that airport and that 12,001 feet (the length of the runway) is significant. As I’ve been able to go out and look — there’s over 100 runways in the state of Arizona — we’re the third-longest runway.
HR: So, you can land anything there …
TB: Which goes back to the historical … the space shuttle could have landed there at that point. So, it (the length of the runway) opens us up to do some larger aircraft. So, whether it be maintenance and repair kind of operations, whether we look at larger UAS, unmanned aerial systems.
Part of the reason why we went to North Dakota was to look at what they’ve done. The state of North Dakota at Grand Sky has got about 15 years of work.
So, that’s kind of the intent: how do we take that land, use the airport and the apron that we’ve got and then really bring in some primary jobs. At the end of the day, that’s the bulk of what we’re attempting to do.
HR: Given the length of the runway, and then the unique aspects of Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca, are there specific types of businesses that you’re targeting to bring in there?
TB: Well, again, in the broadest scope, I think the two big bins of folks we would look at are folks who are doing maintenance and repair on large aircraft. A lot of these airstrips (in Arizona) are 5,000 feet, here and there. So, again, we want to do something that’s compatible with Fort Huachuca, so I’d need a light user of the airspace, which if you’re doing maintenance and repair of one or two large aircraft, you might be flying once or twice a week. That’s easy, we’ve been able to work with the fort to make sure that we could tie that in.
The same could be said, possibly, for large unmanned aerial systems, things that can’t land on 6,000 feet of runway. So, there’s a couple companies that are doing the large aircraft — I mean, there’s a zillion companies doing the smaller UAS, but that’s not really compatible with what Fort Huachuca’s got. You know, we don’t want a bunch of quad-copters rolling around the airfield. That’s a bit problematic for them. So we’re really going to stay focused on the large (aircraft) and I’m trying to develop a letter, kind of a common understanding and planning between the city and Fort Huachuca about: Here are the types of things they would let us bring in; kind of a pre-approval letter, for lack of a better term. So when we sit down with a company, they’re going to ask, ‘Well, who’s running the airport?’ Well, the Army is running the airfield, but your aircraft meet these requirements.
And then the other thing we’ve looked at is the technology that would allow us to fly large UAS. There’s some radar technology and beyond visual line of sight (technology) that gives us some capacity. We’ve been working with the fort on that, too. Effectively, it would allow them to take their radar picture and then you, as the operator, would be able to see what is around you. Because right now, if you think about the UAS (pilots), they see their screen — they know where they’re at — but they don’t have any other situational awareness, whereas a normal pilot has their eyes as they look out and can see all around them. So that would be kind of a technology gap that would be filled in so they see other aircraft.
But really, if you boil it down, it’s the larger, heavy aircraft side and then the large UAS that are probably the two that we would really target.
HR: So, even though that land has been deeded to the city, Fort Huachuca still has considerable say about what goes in at that airfield?
TB: Yes. And there are some pieces that they put into the deed that give them — again, they are running the functional use of the airfield. And it’s a big economic driver; we don’t want to impact it. So, we’ve got to find something that fits the land, something that fits our neck of the woods. It would provide the jobs, but that mission has to fit neatly in and not impact the fort.
HR: And, given your history on Fort Huachuca, I’d imagine you’re fairly familiar with their needs.
TB: (Laughs) I think I know it, yeah. I do. I don’t get to speak on their behalf anymore, but yes. But again, that relationship and understanding of what they’re attempting to do with the testing and training missions that they’ve got, I’ve got a pretty good feel about what would fit and wouldn’t fit.
HR: Let’s talk about the West End. There are several grant programs that are ongoing to incentivize businesses and property owners to upgrade the appearance of their buildings. What else is happening to try to attract new businesses to the West End, or to get existing businesses to expand?
TB: We’ve got several things going on there. In addition to the grant process, we’ve got the public process that’s linked into the streetscape. We had two very successful public meetings — about 100 folks between the two events came out and asked questions. So they’re going through the design and engineering phase of what that would look like. So that’s part two — if you’ve got the grants and incentives, the streetscape would be part two — and the third one, I would say, is we’re looking at Landwehr Plaza and Soldier Creek Park right there on Garden Avenue. How do we improve that, maximize the space and, obviously, make it look better and really activate the space? Soldier Creek Park is really underutilized, and Landwehr just hasn’t seen a lot of attention as of late.
And then the fourth one specific to the West End — it came out of the strategic plan from the mayor and council — is looking at an entertainment district. Many cities around Arizona have an entertainment district — art and those types of things. I’ve been working with (Community Development Director) Matt McLachlan on, kind of, where do we go with that? And I expect we’ll bring that to council probably the first of 2020, January or February. And what that will allow them to do, under Arizona Revised Statute, is give them a little bit of flexibility in what they can accomplish, say, within the liquor licensing rules about how close a building (where alcohol is sold) can be to a church or something like that. What that allows them to do, if the council approves it, then they’ll have the flexibility to do some waivers.
We’ll put a focus on what we think we want to do and set the conditions for the West End …
HR: Waivers through … who would be providing waivers?
TB: Well, waivers might not be the right word there. Exceptions to policy. So, for instance, if you were putting in a taproom or whatnot, now you’ve got certain rules that the liquor board of the state of Arizona would prohibit you from being (within a certain distance) from a church, for instance. Within the entertainment district, the way the revised statute works, it gives the council some flexibility to approve some variance.
So, again, it really tries to focus on an entertainment and arts kind of thing. And, from a policy perspective, that’s probably the last thing we can do to try to incentivize the West End. So, it’s a real combination of the four.
Now, from a business retention standpoint and trying to move folks in, that’s where I work every day. So, as folks come in and say, “Hey, I’ve got this idea for a business and I’m looking for a location,” we can help direct them to some potential options and then they work with the commercial brokers to handle all the deals.
We’re still working with a couple different folks on some potential businesses that would show up in the West End. It’s slow. In some cases, it’s much slower than I had hoped.
HR: Talk about some of the bigger challenges you face and overcome in recruiting new businesses to Sierra Vista.
TB: Well, one, the people that have been in my job, we’ve had some significant transition. I may be the longest-serving person (as economic development director), but I don’t know. The reality is, the environment is tough. I mean, the fort, on one hand, is a $2.8-$2.9 billion impact. So, we’ve got a significant input — 14,000 jobs up there. So, that’s both good and bad. As we’ve gone along, I don’t think (it’s an exaggeration to say) we’ve got a significant piece there.
We tried to work the diversification through the Office of Economic Adjustment grant. It had a small impact.
And I think some of it is the expectation, too. I mean, we’re not Tucson and we’re not Phoenix. We’re not going to bring in Geico with 600 jobs. Lucid Motors just rolled into Casa Grande, but they’ve been working on that for years. They just broke ground this week.
So, I think, one, the expectation level of where we’re at — the basis of the economic development framework, if you really boil it down, talks about changing the environment, and changing the environment to get to a different result. As you look at companies and as you look at recruiting talent — you know, we’ve had enough opportunity to engage with site selectors and companies and businesses — one, they’ve got to know that we’re here. So, we’ve got to have some pretty targeted marketing to make sure they know we’re here. I’ve gone through the industrial park and heavy-industrial and light-industrial land, and we don’t have a ton of that here within the city limits proper. So where do we go from here and how do we partner with surrounding cities? We’ve kicked things over to the county, because they’ve been able to (market the area).
Nothing happens fast, that is a challenge. And then trying to build the relationships, to be able to set the conditions so we can really go after (businesses). The airport is an example. Quite frankly, my gut tells me that until we get the land prepared — I’ve shown it four times in the last year, which is probably more than we’ve had in the last several years, so there is some interest in it. But you have to understand the business cycle. They might spend a year or two looking for a location, but once they pull the trigger they want to be up and running and creating revenue in nine to 12 months. That’s kind of where the dirt problem (at the airport) is an issue. If I have to go another year … You know, “Hey, Tim, we’ll be set in another year and I’ll get this taken care of,” well, by then they’ve looked at somebody else, and it’s a very competitive market out there.
And, again, talent and the ability to draw talent in has become the new norm when you start talking to economic developers and businesses — can they draw the talent that they need to fill positions? One gentleman, I heard him say, “We can’t go to any market and get all of our talent.” And so, can the community maintain and support all of the talent that you need? So, that comes into the educational line — where does Cochise College fit in and some of those great programs that they’re doing to crank out talent? University of Arizona South, or the College of Applied Sciences, we’re looking at soldiers as they transition out of Fort Huachuca, whether it’s initial term or they’re a retiree. What are their skills and what can we use? We’ve looked at military spouses — in many cases they’re either unemployed or underemployed. So, it’s a very tight market. When you look at the unemployment across the country, the market for talent or the drive for talent is becoming a huge interest.
And part of that comes into the quality of life. You know, do people enjoy where they’re at? Health care, schools, education, opportunities. You know, those kinds of things.
It’s very, very interesting that it’s kind of intertwined. A couple years back, if I talked to some of the economic developers, it was incentives or what they could give away for free. Now, because the job market is so tight and unemployment is so low, employers want to know that they can hire (all the people they need). Let’s just use an example — if it’s 50 employees, you might have to interview 150 just to get to the 50. And then they need a pipeline, because they know some of them are going to move out and leave. It’s a complex issue, and there isn’t an easy fix for any of it. So, you’re trying to do a bunch of different things. And I think that’s why having the city — when I came on, (City Manager Chuck Potucek’s) guidance was, “Don’t do this alone,” and really try to pull all the elements of the city staff together and say, “Hey, you all have a role in this.” And that’s what I tell people. I say, “Look, even how a police officer interacts with somebody. If you have a visitor and you pull them over on Highway 90 or 92, how that police officer interacts very directly implies what kind of community we have.”
Our parks, the status of our streets, all of those things have a role.
HR: What would you point to as some of your biggest successes since you came to City Hall, and is there anything on the immediate horizon that you’re excited about?
TB: Well, there’s a couple that are on the immediate horizon, but they’ve been on the horizon for nine months now. The horizon changes around here.
Success-wise, I would say, one, internal to the city is how the staff has worked together and really jumped in to take on things. I came from the Army side, where everything was staff and team. There wasn’t an “I” in any of it. So, I think a little bit of that culture shift and change — I’ve spent a lot of time Matt McLachlan, a lot of time with (Director of Leisure and Library Services) Laura Wilson, a lot of time with (public information officer) Adam Curtis and (Marketing and Public Affairs Manager) Judy Hector and we’ve collectively worked together to solve a problem.
Within the community, I think there are several businesses that have moved in and opened up. One of the first things I got to work on was with Ponderosa (Hotel Management) at the new Best Western. And I would say the part that is success, for me, is the companies that we’ve worked with or the businesses that have started, they almost always call us and come by and see us. And it’s new ideas and building that relationship and trust of, “Hey, Tony, what do you think about this?” It’s not something we’re going to broadcast. It’s not something I’m going to put in a formal report at the end of the day, but knowing that they’re looking to expand or do something and knowing that they’re going to call us because they value our opinion and our assessment. I think the same could be said for some of the other state organizations. We’ve developed a relationship with the Arizona Commerce Authority so that they will call us. To me, those are all successes. Now, do they show up in the community, necessarily? Maybe, maybe not. But a couple of the ones that we’ve worked with — even things like working with some of the out-of-town folks, they’re all small victories and it’s a series of small things that ultimately will make a significant change.
HR: Everyone in the newsroom wants to know how long you’re going to let your hair grow, and is it an Army career rebellion?
TB: (Laughs) Says the man with a beard. In a way, yes. I jokingly call it my rebellion. After almost 25 years in the Army, I had no idea what it would look like. To be fair, I think my father does not like it, a lot. So, I guess you can even rebel against your parents as a 50-year-old man. I don’t know. My wife has asked me a couple times, ‘What’s the end stage of this thing?’ But yeah, it’s a rebellion. What’s been funny, though, is when I leave Sierra Vista and go out and talk to business owners and other economic developers and the course of the conversation always comes back to ‘Hey, how long have you been doing it and what did you do before?’ and then I tell them I was in the Army and, to a person, they don’t believe that I was in the Army, to the point where I have to pull out my ID card. And then they ask, ‘What was your rank?’ And then I tell them and they’re just like, ‘No. No way.’
And it’s opened up some interesting conversations and talk, because they don’t see me as a retired colonel, by any means. So, it’s been an interesting angle. But yeah, it comes up more often than not.
It’s not going to go on forever. I jokingly said I was going to grow a beard and my wife said I couldn’t have both. But it’s fascinating, the people that don’t even recognize me anymore. It’s something different. You know, it won’t be here forever.