CASA GRANDE — Maricopa County garnered all the headlines this week with its booming population numbers, but its neighbor to the south is quietly chugging along at a steady rate.
The U.S. Census released estimates on Thursday that ranked Maricopa County as the fastest growing county in the country. Over 81,000 new residents are estimated to have been added to the Phoenix area between 2017 and 2018.
Most other counties in Arizona saw little growth, if any, during the same time span. But Pinal County ranked second in the number of new residents it attracted last year.
About 15,000 people are estimated to have been added in Pinal County — a number much higher than estimates seen in Pima, Yavapai and Coconino counties.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland said about the census numbers.
He said as Maricopa County continues to grow and becomes more expensive, more residents will move south to seek more affordable housing.
According to the Cromford Report, the average price per residential square foot in Chandler is about $63 more than in Casa Grande.
McFarland added his city, one of the largest in the county, has many lots ready with the infrastructure to build new homes.
“We have room to grow,” he added.
Pinal County’s population expanded rapidly in the mid 2000s and then quickly tapered off during the Great Recession. Neighborhoods were left unfinished and many homes were foreclosed on — prompting the Wall Street Journal to call one Pinal city a “lost paradise.”
Since 2011, census numbers show the county has been steadily growing each year.
Tim Kanavel, the county’s economic development director, said this pattern of steady growth has been easier for Pinal to manage compared to a sudden wave of residents.
And the growth will continue, he said, because Pinal County is geologically primed to attract more development, since it’s positioned between two metropolitan regions.
Kanavel said he once heard an Arizona senator predict that residents could one day travel from Phoenix to Nogales without ever leaving the city.
“It’s getting pretty close to that now,” Kanavel said, commenting on how more and more rural areas are being urbanized.
Big projects like Lucid Motors and Nikola, neither of which have been built yet, are often credited for spurring more interest and development in Pinal County. Since Lucid announced in 2016 it was building a manufacturing plant in Casa Grande, the county’s population has grown by about 30,000 residents, according to census estimates.
Kanavel said the county is currently working to bring two more large development projects, which he’s not authorized to disclose at this time, that will further boost the county’s population.