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Basking in Bright Sunshine of Nonstop Economic Good Times

Wall Street's bears are a long way from Tucson, where folks can well afford to look on the bright side. It's no surprise they are upbeat about the future.

September 08, 1998|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUCSON — The threat of worldwide economic collapse and the recent stock market plunge are merely distant rumblings here, drowned out by the hammering of new construction and the steady cha-ching of cash registers.

If there has been infectious national dread fueled by Wall Street's fluctuations, this boom town in the shadow of the Santa Catalina Mountains has been inoculated. Bathed in near-perpetual sunshine, propelled by an expanding economy and buoyed by a 2.6% unemployment rate, residents here steadfastly refuse to allow negative thoughts to darken their quality of life.

"I have my money in aggressive stocks, and I call and check on it every week," said Deloris Woolever, an office manager for a local florist. "I'm in it for the long haul, and I've learned not to panic. I'm not worried."

Standing nearby, shop manager Deborah Wilson nodded emphatically. "You've got to live. If you worry every day, what kind of life will you have? It's a risk. That's the way I look at it."

The bears of Wall Street are a long way from the sunnily disposed denizens on the main street of this city of 405,000. No place can easily stand for middle America, but Tucson is a good representative of the high-tech-friendly, midsize cities scattered along the Sun Belt. As the markets roiled last week, experts quickly noted that the U.S. economy remains strong. Here, that observation is seconded many times over.

Residents can well afford to look on the bright side. Measurements of consumer confidence are at near record levels. Retail sales have increased 8% over last year. Arizona is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, and, in recent months, the state has been No. 1 in employment growth.

In such an upbeat context, it's difficult for consumers here to allow even last week's ominous news of tumbling stock prices to trouble them. Tucsonians watched as Wall Street had another volatile week, with the Dow Jones industrial average off again Friday--and down more than 18% from its July 17 record of 9,337.97.

But from avid investors to those who put their money in their mattresses, there was mild interest but no sign of panic here. A philosophical approach prevails.

Standing in the blistering heat on a downtown street while attempting to hail a cab, one retiree shrugged her shoulders. "I've been in the market all my life, and I've seen it go up and I've seen it go down," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "Our economy is still good. It's just something you ride out."

The civic climate is red-hot, and that's no reference to the desert temperatures. Growth is the city's motto. Jack Camper, president of the Tucson Chamber of Commerce, is, not surprisingly, upbeat.

"The people of Tucson are a pretty hardy bunch," he said. "They are used to ups and downs in the economy. I don't think this recent stock market fluctuation has anybody terribly concerned. We're doing pretty well in Tucson. It's a hot market--come and see us!"

The bedrock of Tucson's economy is a strong manufacturing base--mostly computers and optics--and a rampant construction industry that cries it hasn't enough workers to meet the demand for homes. The University of Arizona supports a small but strong research sector and nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base infuses more than $680 million a year into the local economy.

Some say Westerners are simply better equipped to handle economic uncertainty than those in other regions.

Philip Burgess, president of the Center for the New West, a Denver-based think tank, called the West a "hopeful land," one with a unique outlook.

"One of the most telling things about the West is you have a different vision of the world," he said. "Instead of looking at the smokestacks across the Atlantic, you look at the silicon chips across the Pacific. The people are self-selected, optimistic risk-takers who have gone against the grain all their lives. There aren't as many hand-wringers per capita."

Evidence here confirms a "What, me worry?" attitude. Marshall J. Vest is an economist who operates an economic forecasting project at the University of Arizona. Among his clients are local business leaders with whom he discusses the economic climate and trends.

"I get paid to worry," Vest said. He remembered sitting in meetings where he would point out the grave problems in Asia, update clients about the monetary crisis in Russia and note the possibility that the U.S. economy might slide.

"They'd listen in silence, with their hands folded and nodding at what I'd say," he said. "Then, when we opened it up to discussion, they'd all talk excitedly about how great business was. There is nothing I can say that would ever worry them.

"One of the things we should be worried about is that no one seems to be worried. People seem to be euphoric. I'm talking to builders, bankers and people in industry. These guys are optimistic. They think it's never going to end."

Vest said consumer spending here is at an all-time high, almost recklessly so.

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