Tucson merchant Jack "The Color TV King" Fitzgerald carved out a name for himself back in the mid-70s with a series of distinctive late-night television commercials. Standing among a pile of teevee sets and packing crates, he would harangue the viewer with a pitch that always began with a simple, effective, "Hi folks..." You could easily pick up Tucson stations in Phoenix back then, so even my friends and I knew his spiel.
In the fall of 1976, my pal Jack Knetzger sent me this article from Tucson, where he was attending the University Of Arizona. It's clear from Jack's enthusiastic circling that what mattered most to him was Fitzgerald's square family values, his kitschy old school "American Dream" work ethic, and above all, the trappings of his Catholic upbringing (something both Jacks had in common). No doubt the life sized dead Jesus in the living room was the real deal clincher.
You can be sure the article's description of Fitzgerald's beef with the Tucson City Council, his marshaling of the business community to force a recall of city council members who had voted for water rate increases, was completely lost on a couple of stoned teenagers. But as it turns out, the problems associated with Tucson's municipal water policy continues to haunt the town's local politics even to this day.
Apparently, the trouble started when the city council approved a 30 percent raise in water rates, this despite encouragement by consultants to raise rates by 240 percent. It seems Tucson is supplied by groundwater beneath the city. Higher rates would have had the dual effect of raising money for crucial improvements and also regulating the scarce commodity. But folks like Jack Fitzgerald saw this move as "anti-business," and resolved to nip these "anti-growthers" in the bud. Yeah, they succeeded, but guess what? The new officials raised rates anyway. What choice did they have?
Today, it seems only Fitzgerald remains pleased with the effects of the recall, if only because it put the city on notice that the business community could not be contained, politically at least. However, Tucson never became an economic dynamo. Without a plentiful water source, the city had trouble attracting major industry. And without large scale employers, Tucson cannot muster the funds required for major infrastructure projects.
Tucson's last attempt to deal with the shrinking water table problem was a disaster. A plan to pump Colorado River water from the state's Central Arizona Project into the homes of residents failed when the water was far below the quality consumers had grown accustomed to. Furthermore, the difference in CAP water's chemical composition resulted in burst pipes all over town. Voters overwhelmingly demanded a return to groundwater.
A drive through the streets of Tucson is like a drive into the past. Small independent businesses still dominate the scene. Buildings shuttered for as long as I can remember remain standing, boarded up and waiting for an economic climate that would make it worthwhile to tear them down. For fans of historic architecture, the town is full of treasures, slowly crumbling, but retaining their evocative charm. If you look hard enough, you might even find one of these still hanging around.