Maricopa likely would still be a farming town if it hadn't been for developer Michael Ingram.

Ingram, of El Dorado Holdings, took an interest in Maricopa back in the '80s, buying up 18,000 acres, often for as little as $500 a pop.

He developed the town's first subdivision, Rancho El Dorado, named for a ranch he'd bought that once belonged to John Wayne. He put in utilities there and played a key role in getting State Route 347 widened, connecting Maricopa to Interstate 10 and the Phoenix market.

"No one saw it," Ingram said. "They just couldn't believe that this would be a successful community."

Ingram's vision was simple: expand the drive-till-you-qualify ring.

"We'll be bringing something on the market that's far below the southeast Valley today because prices are so much lower" in Maricopa, he told the Phoenix Business Journal in 1996, when Maricopa's population was about 600.

And people bought into that vision, flocking to his lower-priced homes. At the peak, Maricopa grew by nearly three people an hour.

"We were the fastest-growing city in the United States based on our size," Maricopa Mayor Anthony Smith said.

Ingram literally put Maricopa on the map. When he began Rancho El Dorado, the city of Maricopa didn't exist. It was unincorporated Pinal County, meaning there were no impact fees and few planning requirements. The result, said Grady Gammage Jr., a senior fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy, was that development became "self-regulating."

"That's not bad development, but it started happening very rapidly, and it kind of overwhelmed the infrastructure." he said, "And then it collapsed."

Other developers jumped in, and by the time Maricopa became a city in 2003 and started levying impact fees "there were six more master-planned communities on the horizon," said Edward Farrell, Maricopa's founding mayor and a current city councilman.

Despite the housing downturn, Maricopa is actually in fairly good shape. The city socked away money from impact fees and has a substantial rainy-day fund. It's using the slowdown in housing to catch up.

But Maricopa has problems beyond foreclosures and housing prices. It smells because of nearby feedlots; trains rattle through at all hours, clogging traffic; and utility rates are sky-high because even though the area has grown exponentially, it hasn't grown as much as anticipated.

And the downturn has left Maricopa unfinished. There's nothing to do, and nowhere to go. The closest hospital is in Casa Grande or Chandler - both about 35 minutes away if the roads are clear. Arizona 347 is the only connection to Phoenix, so the road gets packed at rush hour.

"If we had something to offer other than cheap housing, we would be a much more attractive city," said Maricopa resident Heather Susoreny, who commutes about 100 miles round-trip to her job in Phoenix.

Susoreny put $180,000 down on her house in Maricopa and has watched it disappear with sinking home values - she calls it her "ghost money."

She's watched other homeowners walk away, and she said she vacillates between being "pissed off and acceptance" of the situation. She used to follow news about the housing crisis and track sales, but all of that made her feel crazy. Now she just tunes it out.

Still, she said, she likes living in Maricopa. She liked the promise of a new city and has no pressing plans to leave. She'd like to wait it out, she said - until she can get at least a tenth of her ghost money back.

By the numbers


Population in 2003


Population in 2009


Percentage of residents commuting

60 to 100 miles round trip in 2009


Percentage of residents commuting

32 to 60 miles round trip in 2009


Planned housing units as of late 2009


Estimated vacant homes as of 2010


Median sales price in 2006


Median sales price 1st quarter 2010


Percentage of home listings in some form of foreclosure at the end of 2009.

SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau, city of Maricopa Mixed Survey, Arizona State University Realty Studies, Electrical District 3, city of Maricopa.

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