I f an area is lucky, a massive company will move in and bring thousands of jobs with high wages. That company’s economic impact will be immediately felt, and if it can stay in business growth and prosperity will continue for generations.
Very few communities get so lucky, though. In most places, it takes a team to build up an economy that can support many of the residents living nearby.
In Casa Grande, many pillars have allowed the economy to prosper throughout its long history. There is plenty of retail, industry and health care to provide a diversity of jobs and increase the spending power of residents.
What those residents might not know is the help some major businesses in the city received to open. For decades, a group of volunteers have been working behind the scenes to make sure those who want to invest in Casa Grande receive the help they need to get their feet off the ground and start contributing to a healthy economy.
They belong to a group called the Casa Grande Industrial Development Authority, created on Nov. 18, 1974, under then-Mayor Jimmie Kerr. The late Donovan M. Kramer Sr. was the longtime president of the IDA and pushed for development to create jobs. Tommy Caywood was the longtime treasurer and retired in 2018.
For example, if a company is thinking about building a factory in the city, it must be financially viable. Naturally, the management would go to banks for traditional financing, and the banks would come back with an interest rate. That rate might be higher than the company would like, so it could look elsewhere.
The IDA, meanwhile, offers municipal bonds at steadily low rates to fund such projects. The companies obtain those tax-exempt bonds and then sell them through their own representatives, with investors offering a lower interest rate because of the tax-exempt status.
Since its inception, the IDA has helped finance Casa Grande Regional Medical Center, the Frito-Lay factory, Holiday Inn and Hexcel expansions. Together, this has brought hundreds of jobs to Casa Grande, many of them well paying.
However, the IDA has seen its use as a bond servicing agent dry up in recent years. In fact, the refinancing of the hospital in the early 2010s was the last project funded by those bonds. That, according to Chairman David Fitzgibbons III, is due to historically low interest rates across the banking industry ever since the economy crashed in 2008. He said if those rates are lower than those offered by the bonds, which they almost always are, there is no direct benefit of choosing an IDA.
“I’m worried about staying relevant,” Fitzgibbons said. “I want to ask around to see what else we could do to spur growth in Casa Grande. We’re open to different ideas.”
One way the IDA has diversified is by getting into the real estate business. It owns land in the downtown area that has the potential to revitalize the area. The IDA is trying to bring in various establishments, including housing, to attract more people to the area.
One area where the IDA has been successful is at the intersection of Florence and Second streets, with the CookEJar restaurant. It has been surrounded by other small businesses hoping to get the foot traffic that a downtown should always see.
The IDA invested some of the fees it collected from bond sellers to renovate the property before the restaurant moved in and later shared some of the costs for expansion.
“They had to make a big investment in their capital to open up their business,” Fitzgibbons said. “Well, that’s an old building with old electric and other sorts of things. So our deal was to structure things in a way that would help them move in.”
Now, the restaurant is still packed to the edges on most lunch days, especially in the winter. Mary Ann Versluis remembers opening the location in 1992 after several years in Tri-Valley Plaza. She said she was lured there by the IDA when it was looking for anyone to bring some life to the area. Ever since, she’s been able to pay her rent on time and she said the IDA has been nothing but nice to work with.
“It’s very unusual for IDA funds to not have a percentage go to the state Legislature,” Versluis said. “It all stays here, so they can spend it however they want. They chose to put it into downtown.”
Versluis grew up in Ajo, where the downtown was small but was the center of all culture for its residents. She envisions that same atmosphere in Casa Grande, maybe with housing surrounding a center courtyard within walking distance. She sees that as the new future and said it is well on its way. She would know as a member of the board of the downtown organization Casa Grande Main Street.
With an economy that has recovered since the 2008 crash, there are more people with money to spend, and Versluis wants them to spend it locally. Sometimes, she bites off more than she can chew as winter visitors overwhelm the restaurant many days of the year. That’s been happening around the entire Casa Grande dining scene, to the point where it seems as if locals won’t go out to eat until the summer.
Versluis loves to see that success be spread around town, since there seems to be enough money for everyone to be happy. That, after all, is the culture of teamwork people like the members of the IDA have tried to foster in economic development.
“You know, it’s perfect,” she said. “It’s a small-town feel, but it’s close to the city. You really have all the amenities. It’s got the best of everything.” | PW