Unincorporated Queen Creek boomed when housing was hot, growing to an estimated 80,000 residents along Hunt Highway. But the downturn has marooned residents, who now struggle with slogging commutes, fallen values and few services. ARIZONA DAILY STAR

An airport in Florence the size of Tucson International. A population 1.3 million strong, connecting Phoenix and Tucson. A dynamic corridor attracting jobs and growth.

Even now, despite being ground zero of the housing crisis, Pinal County leaders have big plans.

Few places have flown higher and crashed harder than Pinal County in recent years. When housing was hot, Pinal turned its fields into subdivisions as growth exploded and the county's population doubled.

The housing crisis, though, has left a legacy of stalled projects, vacant homes and one of the nation's highest foreclosure rates. If housing is Pinal's newest crop, foreclosures are its pestilence.

Pinal's leaders remain unfazed by all this, continuing to see the county as the key link in the Sun Corridor, connecting Phoenix and Tucson into one sprawling region.

Pinal County, they say, is the place where the two cities will merge into one future, a keystone to Arizona's growth. The county, they add, may be a foreclosure wasteland now, but by virtue of its prime location and abundant sunshine, it will rise from the ashes and boom again. Pinal's leaders are planning for this - and banking on it.

"We are sitting between the two urban, metro areas. By natural growth, it's going to connect, and that's us," said Ken Buchanan, Pinal's assistant county manager for development services. "It's how we connect those two urban centers together that is going to be the key to the Sun Corridor."

But Buchanan and other Pinal leaders assume the growth will continue - and in a post-housing-crisis world, not everyone agrees. Some experts and businesspeople now question whether people will continue to flock to Pinal, much less Arizona, or if the county and state are really up to the task of attracting meaningful jobs to go along with all those rooftops.

The great recession has changed the economy and how people live, they say. Instead of seeing Pinal as a keystone to Arizona's Sun Corridor, they see it as a poster child of the state's economic problems: a depressed land that has relied too much on housing and shown little in the way of economic development and job growth.

"Is the Sun Corridor going to happen? I think the answer is still yes, but I'm not sure when, and it's not what we thought," said Grady Gammage Jr., a zoning lawyer and a senior fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy. "Pinal probably is ground zero for the Arizona of the future. What happens there will set a tone for the future of Arizona."

Instead of reflecting promise, Pinal now reflects the state’s present-day challenges — namely few jobs, high unemployment and an economy over-reliant on housing construction.

How Pinal recovers from the housing crisis — if ever — will set the tone for the Arizona of the future and whether the state’s two leading cities merge.

For Pinal’s leaders, recovery means luring more growth.

While hyper-growth fueled Pinal’s housing mess, growth, Pinal officials say, will lead the county out of it.

In this two-part investigation, the Arizona Daily Star brings readers inside Pinal County, the heart of the state’s housing crisis.

Part 1
After housing bust, Pinal sees solution: more growth

Part 2
Pinal plight: lots of roofs, few jobs