Pinal's task: build economic base

More jobs, stores and water needed to sustain county
2010-06-28T00:00:00Z Pinal's task: build economic baseJosh Brodesky Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 28, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Phony growth.

Those are the words Arizona State University professor Jay Q. Butler uses to describe what happened in Pinal County during the boom and bust. Rooftops went up, but jobs didn't follow. Instead of sustainable growth, Pinal became a hotbed of flippers, out-of-state investors and lotteries for big, beautiful homes in the middle of nowhere.

"In a sense, we were creating this gigantic growth aura that really wasn't happening," said Butler, a professor of realty studies at ASU. "You had this perceived population growth, but the job market wasn't growing."

The foreclosure crisis, a lack of jobs and retail, and huge questions about whether there's enough water to support Pinal's new residents all pose challenges to county leaders' vision of big growth.

There are about 50,000 non-farm jobs in Pinal County, and Butler said Pinal needs to build an economic base to serve its current residents, let alone make the vision of one mass development from Phoenix to Tucson a reality.

But with the highest foreclosure rate in the state, attracting companies where Pinal residents can work and stores where Pinal residents can shop is going to be a challenge - particularly when Phoenix and Tucson also have an abundance of affordable homes and commercial space.

The idea of the Sun Corridor is set on a couple of big assumptions that Butler and others question in a post-housing-crisis world - namely that Pinal County, the Phoenix metro area and to some degree Tucson are still growing, and that when the economy fully recovers, people from other parts of the country will again want to move to Arizona because houses are cheap and sunshine is abundant.

"I'm not sure those are good assumptions anymore," said Grady Gammage Jr., a zoning lawyer and senior fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

"We know that growth has stopped in the Phoenix metro area. The consensus is that for the first time ever, we didn't grow last year."

Gammage still believes the Sun Corridor will happen one day. It's just that it might take longer than expected, and the two cities will never truly connect as one massive region.

He also sees another challenge: Pinal County's lack of identity. While Tucson and Phoenix set the tone for Pima and Maricopa counties, Pinal has no dominant city.

"Pinal doesn't have anybody to sort of stake out and say: 'We're going to be the major player. We're going to be where the growth occurs,' " Gammage said. "Most people in Arizona have never thought about Pinal County. They think of it, if they think of it at all, as what you drive through between Tucson and Phoenix, and they don't like it."

It's not as if officials aren't aware of these challenges. Pinal recently hired an economic-development director, and its comprehensive plan outlines potential industries across the county in something of a connect-the-dots scenario. Officials talk quite a bit about attracting jobs and industry, getting residents off the roads and building a strong quality of life there. But to the outside business world, Pinal is still a depressed place and will be for a long time.

The lack of retail businesses doesn't help; it reduces the quality of life and leaves residents feeling stranded in the suburbs. Pinal residents either head to Phoenix to do their shopping or hit the one major shopping center in Casa Grande, a "power center" with big-name retail and a movie theater.

"There was nothing like that in the area," said Jim Pederson, who developed the shopping center and is best known for his 2006 U.S. Senate run.

The power center has done well, Pederson said, partly because it's the only game around. And it will be for a while. Pederson said it could be two years until more retail moves into Pinal County, and he was being optimistic.

"Retailers are going to need to see a very stable population," he said, noting the high foreclosure rate.

Pederson grew up in Casa Grande, and it's clear that he would like to see the Sun Corridor become a reality. But with no clear vision for economic development in Pinal, Pederson said he couldn't see it happening.

"Everyone has been saying Phoenix and Tucson are going to fill in," he said. "Well, I've been hearing that all my life, and that hasn't happened yet."

Similarly, apartment magnate Humberto S. Lopez, of Tucson-based HSL Properties, didn't see much going on in Pinal.

He recently bought an apartment complex in Casa Grande, but not because of potential growth or the idea of the Sun Corridor. The price was good, and the financing was great.

"Pinal County is depressed at this point," he said. "The only advantage is there are a lot of entry-level homes out there at great prices."

And even if Pinal overcomes the challenges of foreclosures, a lack of services and jobs, and roads that are overtaxed, it still faces huge questions about water.

"Pinal has had major problems for years with water," said University of Arizona law professor Robert J. Glennon, the author of several books about water, including "Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to Do About It."

The county essentially lives on its aquifers, and until recently it had been pumping at what Glennon called "exceedingly low levels." While Tucson Water pumps 250 to 300 feet below ground, Pinal is often pumping 800 to 1,000 feet below ground.

Pinal County Supervisor Bryan Martyn said water concerns could start arising as early as the next five years as developments start struggling to find a required 100-year assured water supply.

"It's a limiting factor in our growth five, 10, 15 years from now, but today it's enough," Martyn said.

Converting cropland to homesites saves water, he said, so that should help Pinal. But Gammage, of ASU, said it may be time to rethink that idea. Water used for agriculture is a much-needed buffer in times of drought, he said.

"Water for agriculture and water for people are different things," he said. "Farmers, in times of drought, you just tell them they are not getting much water this year."

"Most people in Arizona have never thought about Pinal County.

They think of it, if they think of it at all, as what you drive through between Tucson and Phoenix, and they don't like it."

Grady Gammage Jr., zoning lawyer and senior fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy

Contact reporter Josh Brodesky at jbrodesky@azstarnet.com

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