A Backstage Peek into the Evolution of Fifth and Congress

May 8, 2013

By Maria Inés Taracena

Attendees look around the room, waiting for the tour to begin.

Attendees look around the room, waiting for the tour to begin.

As the area begins to fill up with locals, the undecipherable whispers of a few people grow into a mass of unanimous chatter for what’s coming to a little intersection of Downtown Tucson.

It’s a Thursday afternoon on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Congress Street. What began as a party of ten, quickly, became a gathering of about 200 people waiting for the tour to start. The tour: a celebration of the seven new businesses opening at Fifth and Congress this year.

Scott Stiteler, manager of Tucson Urban LLC and Rudy Dabdoub of North Face Investments had the initiative of inviting Tucsonans on an afternoon stroll through the locales of these newborn businesses. This backstage tour was followed by a small, outdoors shrimp boil party with lots of beer, wine, cucumber water, and jazz music.

The tour on May 2 seemed more like an Old Pueblo family reunion. People and children caught up to what’s new, showcased local accomplishments, and were reinforced on the need for an ever-growing support system.

Some of the buildings still have plastic on the windows, and wood dust remains from all the drilling and hammering. But, Stiteler wanted people to look at these places in raw form. “It is fun for people to go behind the scenes and see what happens long before a business opens,” he says. “I wanted everyone to see these wonderful, old buildings as they transform into something new.”

On this afternoon, people gathered inside a space next door to Sparkroot Coffee Bar. The adults chat around the candy table, and the children kill time throwing darts at “development darts” posters. Then, Stiteler announces that the walk is about to begin.

Paul Moir and Scott Stiteler at Proper, speaking to tour attendees.

Paul Moir and Scott Stiteler at Proper, speaking to tour attendees.

First, he leads the group to 256 E. Congress St. The building is Shark’s Bar former home. And, hopefully as of August 2013, a new, Caribbean-inspired restaurant and rum bar by the name of Saint House (Downtown baby No. 3 for Travis Reese and Nicole Flowers, owners of 47 Scott and Scott & Co.) will bring the building back to life. The skeleton barely is being finished, but locals are so eager to see the end result that they can, already, taste the food in their mouths.

Onward to Proper: another creation by Flagstaff-based restaurateur, Paul Moir. Here, Stiteler stands next to Moir with a hand on his shoulder. The body language says a lot about the relationship between the pair and the rest of the business owners. Stiteler describes these relationships as “supportive.” “It is a lot more than just being a landlord,” he says. “It is about a shared experience, creating a culture of people who have a vision about how great Downtown Tucson is, how great it can be, and that we all need to work together.”

At Proper, Stiteler also speaks about the importance of keeping Fifth and Congress local. He says it feels good to support, not just the people and businesses of Arizona, but also the products of Arizona. So, it is not surprising that Proper (as well as Diablo Burger next door) has a menu replete of local everything. “I have a lot of great expectations for the culinary experience here,” Stiteler says. And so does the rest of the Old Pueblo.

People stand in line, ready to explore  Diablo Burger and Connect.

People stand in line, ready to explore Diablo Burger and Connect.

The crowd begins to walk toward Diablo Burger for a quick glance. Derrick Widmark, owner of Diablo, stands inside, greeting visitors and handing them DB’s bright yellow menu samples. People continue to the back patio and up the stairs to the top of the Rialto Theatre. The empty construction site behind Diablo and the wooden skeleton above the Rialto are in the process of transforming into Connect, a co-working space that will have private offices and other work spaces available. A small group of attendees walk outside to the terrace. Some stand, absorbing the breathtaking view from atop, and others walk up and down the space, imagining what it’s going to look like once construction has wrapped up.  Stiteler says they hope to open it in the fall of this year.

As Stiteler stands in the middle of this project, he addresses guests with gratitude and satisfaction but also a realization that there is still a lot more to be done. His and the business owners’ work do not end on opening days. And, by the conclusion of the tour, everyone began to head to the shrimp boil with a clear understanding that it is now also up to them to help these new businesses thrive. “We have to keep looking forward on how much more we have to do together to finish strong,” Stiteler says. “I want the community of Tucson to understand how important Downtown is, and to come down and participate in its growth.”