Can a state with so much unpopulated wilderness and no coastline be trendy? I confess: Before I became a part-time Tucson resident last year, I had a bit of that East Coast myopia that leads people who should know better to believe that disruption and sophistication are somehow limited to places that can see an ocean.
Then I turned my trendspotter’s eye toward Arizona and realized how much is going on here: extreme culinary artists on every corner in Scottsdale, a renaissance in downtown Tucson as it sheds some of its crunchiness, new co-working spaces and startup contests everywhere I look, and game-changing universities.
One example at the college level is the Huerta Scholars Program for prospective Native American law students, which I learned about first-hand when my agency provided pro bono counsel. It was established at the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law in honor of Judge Lawrence Huerta, the first Native American to graduate from the college and practice law in Arizona. And at Arizona State University, President Michael Crow is rewriting the role of entrepreneurship and innovation into every department, including the new School of Sustainability and a model he calls the New American University.
The state is also at the forefront of some of the shifting currents of society. It feels as if Arizona is ground zero in the red-versus-blue (where’s the purple?) battle. A Politico story a few months ago reported that a study from researchers at MIT and UCLA found that Mesa is the most conservative American city with more than 250,000 residents. Yet just over 100 miles away lies true-blue Tucson.
Only 11 miles from Mesa is Scottsdale, with a creative culinary culture that landed it at No. 2 on Livability’s 2014 ranking of America’s top 10 foodie cities. Livability looked at how much local people really care about food (one of the hottest topics in trendspotting today): the number of farmers markets, how often people eat at locally owned restaurants and how much they spend when eating out, access to healthy foods and more.
Four more ways Arizona is a trend barometer:
- Bilingual everything and everybody.
- The future of the U.S. involves a large population of Hispanic/Latino Americans, and that future came early to Arizona. More than 30 percent of the population is Hispanic, which contributes to the head start the state has in correcting the nation’s glaring foreign-language deficit.
- Going wild.
- The Grand Canyon has always drawn nature lovers. Now the entire state is a magnet for the growing number of people who like to live where they can hike, bike, trek and trail-run daily — which, it seems lately, is everyone, given our national obsession with fitness trackers.
- K-12 education, the cause to watch.
- Yes, Arizona’s public universities are strong, but its K-12 system is very broken, with some excellent schools and some that just don’t work. The state is home to three of America’s top 10 high schools, but it ranks 47th in overall education, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council.
- Small (business) is big.
- I asked earlier where the purple is, but that’s not really fair. Arizona’s geography and history have turned its people kind of purple (although Jon Stewart and others might beg to differ), especially when it comes to fiscal politics, which are more practical than partisan. For example: With no ports, Arizona has limited industry, so it has had to find other sources of employment and revenue. One solution: low taxes that encourage businesses to move in or start up. Now there’s one small business for every 13 citizens, and the state is ahead of the national averages on self-employment. That makes it a trendsetter in one of the big trends for 2015: the continued rise in small businesses.