Tucson as a suburb of Phoenix?

It's already happened, says one University of Arizona economist. Get used to it.

And if Pinal County continues to grow, Tucson's suburban status will become that much more obvious.

"Tucson really is simply a suburb to Phoenix," UA economist Marshall J. Vest said. "Some Tucsonans cringe at the idea that we are just a suburb of Phoenix, but we are."

Are you cringing?

In fairness, Vest was speaking in terms of a global economy where regions, not simply cities, compete for jobs and industries. He also described Phoenix as a suburb of Los Angeles. And he didn't see Tucson's suburban status as a bad thing, saying the Old Pueblo would benefit from a dynamic Sun Corridor, potentially carving out niches in health and wellness, or research and development.

"I think this makes a lot of sense to include all three counties (Pima, Pinal and Maricopa) here when we think about economic power, and how it fits into the global economy," he said.

But there are economic realities, and there are political realities. If Pinal grows as Vest expects, and the Sun Corridor takes off, Tucson should brace for diminished clout.

"None of this bodes well for Tucson," David Berman, a senior research fellow with Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy and a professor emeritus in political science, wrote in an e-mail.

"If you want an international-relations analogy, Pinal is something of a buffer state, torn between rival powers. … Maricopa, the largest and richest power, would have some natural advantages in terms of leverage."

Berman noted Maricopa County has stronger economic ties to Pinal, and many Pinal residents once lived or work in the Phoenix area, meaning they identify more with it than with Tucson.

The fallout: "Pinal may be moving from a buffer state to a satellite state," Berman said.

Anyone and everyone who has tracked Pinal's explosive growth and dramatic fall over the last few years is eagerly awaiting the U.S. census results, which could set the political dominoes in motion.

Pinal County's recent population surge will almost certainly lead to greater representation at the state and federal levels - possibly at Tucson's expense.

"My impression is that the census will show rural areas will continue to lose out in terms of population and, consequently, political influence," Berman said. "The city of Tucson also probably will lose as other areas in Pima as well as Pinal counties gain. It will be interesting to see how the districts are carved up in terms of actually electing people to represent the county in the state Legislature."

Anthony Smith, Maricopa's mayor, said he expects Pinal's number of county supervisors to increase from three to five.

"We'll (also) have additional representation, perhaps, at the state level," Smith said. "So a larger population gives us not only additional money, but it also gives us additional representation."

For Vest, the UA economist, Pinal's growth is nearly as certain as the sunrise. To him, the housing crisis is just a speed bump for the coming Sun Corridor.

"The stage is set for Pinal County to have a great deal of growth going forward," he said. "It has to do with where the available land is for development.

"I definitely see that corridor filling up. (Just) not at the speed we thought a few years ago."

In Vest's view, Tucson should accept the Old Pueblo's suburban status to that other city to the north - and move on.

"The best way to think about the megapolitan area is, we are all part of one large population and business center," he said. "So, for cities in Pima County, including Tucson, I think it's important for people to identify how they fit into the megapolitan area. What sort of role can they play?"

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