COOLIDGE — After a little more than a year in his role, Pinal County’s economic and workforce development director, James Smith, has been party to unprecedented job and industrial growth for the region.
On Dec. 21, he presented current and ongoing economic achievements made by the county at the Coolidge Chamber of Commerce’s year-end member luncheon.
After leading Chandler’s economic development for about 13 years and at the town of Fountain Hills for two, Smith set his sights on the rapidly growing Pinal County in November 2021. Since then, major manufacturers such as LG, Lucid Motors, Nikola Motor Company, Procter & Gamble, Kohler and CCP have promised thousands of jobs and millions in capital investments for the region combined.
Though Pinal County is quickly becoming a “magnet for automotive and advanced manufacturing companies” as Smith’s presentation put it, the county is also fielding interest from aerospace and defense, transportation and distribution, and the natural and renewable resources industries. Gold Bond Building Products, an affiliate of National Gypsum, committed to $250 million for an Eloy facility in 2022, adding 100 jobs. A $376 million manufacturing facility within Casa Grande’s Central Arizona Commerce Park will bring in 500 jobs, while Procter & Gamble plans to set up shop in Coolidge’s Inland Port Arizona with a $500 million facility and 500 jobs.
Though AZBEX reported in July that the project is currently on hold, an LG Energy lithium-ion battery producing facility in the Pinal County portion of Queen Creek would mean $2.8 billion in capital investments and 2,800 jobs. Smith said the county is “hopeful that that will get started early next year (2023).”
However, some neighbors in San Tan Valley have expressed opposition to the project for fear of fire hazards, pollution or further encroachment of heavy industry in their community.
On another note, the electric vehicle industry continues to thrive in Pinal County.
This year, Lucid made plans for a $1.9 billion, 2.7 million-square-foot expansion of its Casa Grande facility and will increase production of 30,000 vehicles a year to 400,000 vehicles, with the addition of 6,120 jobs. Nikola announced investing $800.8 million into a 300,000-square-foot expansion at Coolidge’s Inland Port Arizona, creating 1,762 more jobs.
“So in many ways we really are becoming an electric vehicle-battery kind of epicenter of the U.S.,” Smith said.
With the acquisition of companies such as Cirba Solutions in Eloy, “what we’re also seeing is the end-of-life battery recycling, we’re seeing some of those companies are interested as well,” Smith said.
A booming semiconductor industry is continuing to grow in Casa Grande as well, with expansions and reinvestments made by companies such as Air Products, Kanto PPC, CCP, Jing He Science Arizona and LCY, for a total of $852 million in capital investments and 552 jobs.
“Semiconductors continue to drive a lot of the economic growth in the Valley,” said Smith — referring to the multibillion-dollar investments made by TSMC in north Phoenix and Intel in the East Valley, “but we’re also seeing that spillover of their supply chain — particularly in Casa Grande.”
Though it was a notable year for economic development in the county, Smith said the region is still struggling with labor leakage.
According to a data set from 2019, Smith reported that only 33,046 total residents live and work within Pinal County, while 118,448 residents currently commute out of the region every day for their jobs. This leakage is at the highest resolution in San Tan Valley, “where almost 90% of their residents are going into Maricopa County to work,” said Smith.
“So, one of our strategic goals for our county manager and Board of Supervisors is to create jobs here,” said Smith, “and keep our workforce working here. We just think it’s better for everybody and less strain on our roads, better quality of life for our people.”
Ways in which the county is targeting this issue are by encouraging competitive wages, job training and developing an appeal around cutting down commute times for the surrounding labor force, according to Smith. “In some cases, when there’s highly specialized jobs, we’re trying to help companies recruit to bring people in from other areas,” he said.
With that in mind, a growing housing market is highly desirable for the county in order to keep those recruits within the community.
Apache Junction, Florence and Maricopa are leading the efforts in residential development as of today.
Close to 2,000 homes are expected for sale in 2023 in Apache Junction with 40 acres of commercial; 73 acres of recreational space and 10 acres for public safety currently available. The town of Florence is forecasting 3,500 new homes will be built over the next five years, while Maricopa is looking to add 1,143 single-family and 247 multifamily units in the near future.
Lastly, Smith presented on Pinal County job training and tourism initiatives currently at work.
The job training initiative began in May, according to Smith, and it allows for local employers hiring for positions in the $45,000 to $55,000 salary range to provide up to $4,000 in training reimbursement for Pinal County residents and $2,000 for non-county residents. Industries included in this initiative are focused, but not limited to: semiconductor production, aerospace and defense, automotive/vehicles, biotechnology and medical devices, building materials, green energy and mining.
In anticipation that Pinal County will continue to lead in vehicle manufacturing, a collection of county, state and industry organizations came together on a program known as Drive48. Lucid Motors partnered with the city of Casa Grande, Arizona Commerce Authority, Central Arizona College and Pinal County to provide a training space on the college’s Signal Peak Campus.
Smith said a similar program is in the works with LG Energy for the CAC Apache Junction campus.
As Arizona gears up to host the Super Bowl this February, and other major sporting events such as spring training, World Baseball Classic and Waste Management Open, the county has developed a two-year strategic tourism plan with an advertising cooperative of the Arizona Office of Tourism and seven other communities in the state.
The county pays for half of the initiative while the Arizona Office of Tourism picks up the rest of the bill, he said.
“We’ve tried to make sure that Pinal County is going to be out there,” said Smith. “So, if you’re driving in the Valley you’ll see us on billboards; we’ve got some ads running at Sky Harbor (International Airport) and Phoenix-Mesa Gateway (Airport).”
But, on the economic development side, the county would like to see more resorts and recreation opportunities — specifically in District 5, in the Apache Junction area.
“The supervisor for that area — (Jeff) Serdy, if you know him — has talked about how Scottsdale has 22 resorts and we don’t have one, and you could argue that the natural beauty out here rivals anywhere in the Valley,” said Smith.
To round out the discussion, Smith had a call to action for all of the business leaders and professionals in attendance at the meeting.
For the success of all, the county says it wants to see continued work on improving local K-12 education and innovative partnerships with the local colleges and job training programs, as well as improving and providing a diverse economy and housing market while also revitalizing local amenities and transportation systems.