Arizona cities could become part of nation’s future ‘heartland’

Posted By Mike Padgett

July 21, 2008

Mesa Mayor Scott Smith is representing Arizona in Denver this week at a special meeting where he and his counterparts from neighboring states will talk about their states’ futures.

The discussion was initiated by a new report released Sunday by the Brookings Institution‘s Metropolitan Policy Program. The 80-page report says Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada have the potential to become a major economic and political force in the nation.

It says that because of the southern Intermountain West’s rapid growth in recent years, the region “is well on its way to earning itself the title of the New American Heartland as its economy, people and politics become more central to the nation.”

The “Mountain Megas” report says the Southwest is “experiencing some of the fastest population growth and economic and demographic transition anywhere in the country.”

In Arizona, the high growth region is called the Sun Corridor megapolitan area. It stretches from Prescott through metro Phoenix and south to Tucson and urban areas in Santa Cruz and Cochise counties.

The Brookings report says Arizona’s Sun Corridor grew by more than 1 million residents between 2000 and 2007, pushing the population to more than 5.5 million. That is a growth rate of more than 24 percent.

Key East Valley projects

Smith said a priority for the East Valley is a freeway link south through Pinal County to Tucson. He said that without that direct connection to Tucson, “we’re a cul-de-sac” because the Superstition Freeway from Phoenix ends in the East Valley.

Adding a new freeway from the East Valley south through Pinal County and on to Tucson would benefit central Arizona and all the cities along the route, he said.

He added that the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, which once was on the eastern edge of the metro region, today has the potential to become a new employment and business center that would have access to workers living in new housing proposed throughout the East Valley.

The proposed freeway is one of several East Valley projects high on Smith’s priority list. Two others are plans to develop 275 square miles, or 176,000 acres, of state trust land east of Mesa; and the area around the airport.

The state trust land in Pinal County is a massive development proposal called Superstition Vistas. It could have a population of 900,000 by 2060, according to projections.

The airport, considered a future employment, higher education, business and retail hub for the state, is under consideration by East Valley officials for destination hotels, new housing, and office buildings. Announcements about some of those proposals are expected this year.

And attracting even more attention to the East Valley is the completion of the Loop 202 Freeway’s final 4.5 miles, opening today in northeast Mesa.

East Valley Partnership CEO Roc Arnett, credited with helping choose the name Superstition Vistas, is passionate about the potential of the state trust land as well as the airport.

Since Superstition Vistas is in the path of Valley growth, a freeway as well as commuter rail linking the East Valley directly with Tucson are critical for the East Valley, Arnett said.

“We’re really pushing hard on both these issues, commuter rail and freeways,” Arnett said.

Largest proposal in Arizona

Superstition Vistas is said to be the largest redevelopment proposal in state history. At 275 square miles, and bordering the Tonto National Forest, the state land stretches from Apache Junction east past Florence Junction and south nearly to Florence.

The Superstition Vistas land is as large as the city of Phoenix, south of Dunlap Avenue.

Development likely will take decades, and it involves Mesa, Apache Junction, Queen Creek, Pinal County, East Valley Partnership, the State Land Department, Salt River Project, Central Arizona Project and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy/Sonoran Institute State Trust Lands Joint Venture.

State Land Commissioner Mark Winkleman, in a 2006 report prepared by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, referred to the state land as “the jewel among Arizona’s trust lands.”

“Estimates of its value run well into the billions of dollars,” Winkleman said.

Lend Lease Communities, an international community development company, was selected in September 2005, as planning consultant to begin the planning and engineering process necessary for the state to auction the land.

About 25,000 acres of the state land adjacent to the Superstition Mountains would be considered for preservation because of its rolling hills, deep canyons and lush desert.

Earlier this year, a 70-page report prepared for the Superstition Vistas Steering Committee made several suggestions for best-case developments of Superstition Vistas. The report was prepared by the Robert Charles Lesser Co., a national real estate consultancy, analysis, financing and development company.

The Lesser report’s key recommendations include:

  • A new public or private university.
  • Encouraging development around Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, similar to development around John Wayne Airport in Southern California.
  • Better transportation, including freeways with direct connections south to Tucson.
  • A destination health campus with an emphasis on research.
  • Major employers with several regional headquarters.
  • Resort and convention hotels.

Cooperative spirit cited

The Brookings report praises Arizona for its latest major cooperative achievements – the launch of Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz) and University of Arizona and Arizona State University jointly opening a medical school in downtown Phoenix.

The SFAz initiative started in early 2006 by “three statewide CEO groups – the Flagstaff 40, Greater Phoenix Leadership and Southern Arizona Leadership Council – represents a unique multi-metro public/private push to make serious investments in scientific, engineering and medical infrastructure,” according to the report.

That statewide effort represents a major change from conditions that existed when Brookings researchers in 2002 found “no significant biotech research or commercialization” in metro Phoenix, the report says.

Other prominent leaders invited to the Denver meeting include Deanna Archuleta, Bernalillo County commissioner from New Mexico;  Tom Clark, executive vice president of Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.; Jacob Snow, general manager of Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada; and Alan Matheson, executive director of Envision Utah, a public/private partnership founded in 1997 to focus on long-term growth strategies.

Jul 21st, 2008

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