The case for Pinal County's place at the heart of the Sun Corridor starts with location, location, location.
It's set between Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona's two largest cities, so it makes sense that Pinal is where growth will spill over. The county's population nearly doubled when housing was hot, surging to roughly 340,962 people by 2009. And even though foreclosures have ravaged Pinal, leaving it with one of the nation's highest foreclosure rates, officials say Pinal is one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States. Even in the downturn, and even accounting for people leaving, they expect the area to grow by 12,000 residents this year.
"We are located between the two-headed monster, which is Pima and Maricopa counties, and I view that as a blessing because a lot of the growth is going to come to Pinal County," said Pete Rios, a Pinal County supervisor. "We are still the fastest-growing county in the state of Arizona, still the third-fastest-growing county in the nation, so there is a lot of promise for Pinal County and its future."
U.S. Census numbers for 2010 will show if, in fact, Pinal is still growing.
For years, Pinal has had a reputation as a place that offered affordable homes when compared with the metro Phoenix and Tucson areas. Families could get bigger homes for less money - all for the trade-offs of longer commutes and, usually, fewer services.
"We wanted to get a bigger house because our family was growing," said Jon Cox, who bought in the San Tan Valley, also known as unincorporated Queen Creek, in 2004. "We had a small house. It was time to expand."
Cox lost his home to foreclosure in mid-May and no longer lives in Pinal County, renting now in Gilbert. But his reasons for moving to Pinal were fairly conventional. He could get more home for his money, and he thought services and retail stores would follow the rooftops - but they haven't yet.
He wasn't alone. The San Tan Valley, an unincorporated stretch of exurbia about an hour southeast of Phoenix, had about 4,000 residents in 2001. These days, it has about 80,000. It would be Pinal's biggest city - except that it's not a city. It's just rows and rows and rows of homes along Hunt Highway in unincorporated Pinal County.
This explosive growth has created all kinds of problems. For example, there is no police force, so county deputies answer calls, and sometimes that can take awhile.
Meanwhile, the mostly two-lane Hunt Highway is clogged at rush hour as residents commute to and from Phoenix and Mesa. It would cost more than $129 million to expand the road to six lanes, and the county, which cut its budget by roughly $60 million last year, doesn't have the funds to do that. The original plan was to pay for the six-lane expansion by bonding against future development, but then the housing market tanked.
County officials still say that expanding Hunt Highway is a top priority. They just don't know where the money will come from to do that.
One idea on how to get services to residents is to have the San Tan Valley incorporate.
"The county doesn't have the money to provide the things that a lot of these citizens say they want," said Pinal County Supervisor Bryan Martyn, who is leading the charge to incorporate the San Tan Valley. "This is not going to get any easier. It's not going to get any better. This is as good as it gets."
Martyn's statement might sound a little hopeless, but he is, in fact, bullish on Pinal's future and its place as the center of Arizona's growth. In fact, he doesn't question the idea that growth might not continue.
"You are 80,000 people today, and it's challenging," he said of the San Tan Valley. "Tomorrow, you are going to be 100,000. The day after, you are going to be 120,000."
The conventional wisdom is that all of these problems are little more than growing pains, and Pinal will rebound simply because of its location and affordable homes.
"There is one universal truth - affordability will be a long-term issue inside Pima County," said Shawn Chlarson, president of Pulte Homes' Tucson division.
To that end, Pulte has launched its Red Rock Village development, about 45 miles northwest of downtown Tucson. The development has been slow to take off, but Chlarson still sees it as a burgeoning bedroom community for the Old Pueblo. It might take 10 to 15 years to finish the project, he said, but Pinal's lower impact fees and cheaper homes will continue to lure buyers.
"Red Rock essentially does, and will do for Tucson, what Maricopa or even Casa Grande have done for Phoenix," Chlarson said.
Count University of Arizona economist Marshall Vest as a believer in the Sun Corridor and Pinal County's place in it. Even with the recession, Vest foresees 10 million people living in the Sun Corridor by 2030, with Pinal as a key part of that growth.
The downturn may have slowed the growth machine, but it hasn't stopped it.
"I think the stage is set for Pinal County to have a great deal of growth going forward," he said. "The question is: How are we going to grow? What industries are we going to develop? What's going to drive the economy? Will we have another lost decade like we had last decade, or will we be able to develop those high-technology, high-wage jobs? It's still too early to tell how Arizona is going to develop."
"I think the stage is set for Pinal County to have a great deal of growth going forward.
The question is: How are we going to grow?"
Marshall Vest, University of Arizona economist
Contact reporter Josh Brodesky at email@example.com