COOLIDGE — Government officials and business representatives from around Pinal County filed into the Artisan Village of Coolidge to hear some good news from Pinal County Economic Development Program Manager Tim Kanavel.
Kanavel had plenty to tell the locals on the status of economic development in Pinal County during a Coolidge Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
“Nobody is beating Pinal County right now in anything in economic development,” he said.
Across the United States, there are only a limited number of “unicorns” — start-up companies with valuations of over $1 billion. Four of those companies, Kanavel said, have chosen Pinal County as a key site for their operations.
Since he was hired on with the county shortly after the economic recession of the late 2000s, things have rapidly changed for the Pinal economy, Kanavel noted.
In 2009 the county unemployment rate reached 13.2 percent — marking the highest unemployment rate of all time at the county level. As of May 2018, that rate had fallen to 4.1 percent — the lowest the unemployment has ever been for the region.
County-wide poverty also fell to 12.6 percent.
Conversely, income levels have risen over the past 10 years, with average household income totaling about $51,190 a year. The county is also experiencing one of the highest growth rates in the state, rising by about 13,500 new residents annually.
Kanavel attributes a good portion of these milestones to the county’s commitment to sticking with the 2017-2020 strategic plan. The plan was initially adopted by the Pinal County Board of Supervisors in 2013.
The strategic plan outlines a variety of goals county officials hope to achieve by 2020, such as establishing Live-Work-Play communities, developing infrastructure that promotes growth and attracting businesses that will bring stable economic growth to the region.
The plan also outlines six industry sectors the county is primarily focused on attracting. They are: manufacturing, aerospace defense, transportation logistics, health services, natural and renewable resources, and tourism.
Since adoption of the plan nearly six years ago, some major developments have already come into play.
With Lucid Motors anticipated to begin construction sometime in late 2019 and the Attesa motor sports park slated for development sometime in the fall, Pinal County has managed to rebrand itself as a budding hub for the automotive industry.
Nikola Motor Company also has plans to begin development of a manufacturing plant located at the southern tip of Coolidge — one of the most recent announcements in the push for greater economic development in Pinal County.
“Would anybody ever have thought five years ago that Coolidge would be able to get a billion-dollar manufacturing company here?” Kanavel said. “I don’t think anybody would have.”
The company announced the official acquisition of the property, where it plans to build a 1-million-square-foot manufacturing facility, on Friday.
Kanavel also noted that the county is currently working with another economic development project that has a capital investment that is actually larger than all three companies combined. However, he did not give a name.
He noted that the proposed project fits within one of the five sectors outlined in the strategic plan.
Economic development for Pinal County is primarily focused on bringing in companies that seem best suited for the region, Kanavel noted, and the hope is that the strategy will set the stage for stable economic growth.
“We’ll never be recession-proof,” he said. “But we’re trying to take the highs and lows out.”
But grabbing the attention of major projects like Nikola and Lucid is a process that’s been in the works for years — a process that has involved some rebranding efforts on the county’s part.
That rebranding included changing the county’s logo to resemble an automotive hub. The logo change, however, did not sit well with everybody. It earned criticism from some members of the Board of Supervisors who felt that the design was not indicative of the county.
Just as important to bringing in major development projects is ensuring that Pinal County communities are places where residents have the opportunity to “live, work and play,” Kanavel noted.
Developing those types of communities is a team effort, with county and municipal officials looking to foster safe neighborhoods and affordable housing along with job creation.
Tourism also recently made the list of target industries the county hopes to foster more by 2020. According to Kanavel, Pinal County realizes $700 million annually from tourism.
In an effort to increase tourism dollars, the county invested in a series of tourism videos designed to promote different attractions around the region.
The hope is that the videos will not only encourage more local traffic to visit the various sites featured, but also recruit more tourism-centered businesses to come into the area.
Agriculture also remains another top grossing industry for Pinal, with the county realizing nearly $2.6 billion in agriculture-related business and sales in 2017.
And that dependence on agriculture is now helping innovative businesses like Green Gas Partners.
Located in the Stanfield area, the company extracts methane from cattle manure. The methane is sold to the state of California as fuel for compressed natural gas buses.
But that’s not the only “green” business that’s making its home in Pinal County. From the outskirts of Coolidge to Casa Grande, more and more solar farms are cropping up around the region.
And there’s another massive solar project in the works.
According to Kanavel, an 8,000-acre solar farm could be making its way to San Manuel. The proposed project would be located at the same site that was once the BHP copper mine.
As Pinal communities continue to progress toward the future, striking a balance between sustainable energy projects and industrial developments will also remain a key priority.
“We do have to be environmentally responsible to your grandkids, their kids and everybody else,” Kanavel said. “Everybody thinks that economic development is ‘pave everything and put a smoke stack up.’ That absolutely is not true.”