The December groundbreaking at the Lucid Motors plant in Casa Grande officially cemented Pinal County as a hub for the budding electric vehicle manufacturing industry.
But the Lucid facility is also indicative of an ongoing shift within the local economy — one that thrives on advancements in technology and progressive innovation.
Announcements like the one made by original equipment manufacturer Nikola Motor Company, which plans to build a 1-million-square-foot facility at the southern end of Coolidge, underscore how business and enterprise around the state and even around the country are changing at breakneck speeds.
Within Pinal County, however, the move to accomodate unprecedented corporations like Nikola and Lucid has been years in the making.
“Really this all occurred in the last 10 years,” Pinal County Economic Development Program Manager Tim Kanavel said.
Starting in 2009, Kanavel and others began a new effort to diversify the county’s economy. Where once the region was primarily focused on agriculture and residential development, the future of Pinal County’s economy is based on six pillars, he said: Transportation & Logistics, Manufacturing, Health Services, Natural Renewable Resources, Aerospace Defense and Tourism.
The shift, however, could not have been possible without businesses like Saint Holdings LLC to pave the way.
As one of the largest private land owners in Arizona, Saint Holdings played an integral role in attracting both Lucid and Nikola to the region through the development of the Central Arizona Commerce Park in Casa Grande and Inland Port Arizona in Coolidge.
For years, President and CEO of the company Jackob Andersen and his team have purchased and developed agricultural land, foreseeing a future where that land could become home to large-scale businesses.
That future is fast approaching, with both the Casa Grande commerce park and the IPAZ now home to some big players in the tech industry. The impact of those companies will likely transform much of the region.
“In the next to 10 to 15 years I think you’re going to see a huge population growth (in Pinal) because of the available jobs that are there and I think you’re going to find that it becomes an advanced manufacturing and distribution hub for the Southwest,” Andersen said.
But bringing tech and manufacturing leaders to the area means that Pinal will witness massive transformations in everything from the workforce to infrastructure to better serve incoming industries.
Company officials from Nikola have previously underscored that the average salary at the manufacturing plant in Coolidge will be between $60,000 and $80,000.
But higher-paying positions will require employees who have much more specialized skill sets.
Pinal County is hoping to fill that need, working with institutions like Central Arizona College, which is seeking to give tech and manufacturing students a leg up through specialized certification programs.
Kanavel noted that although companies like Lucid may not require a college degree, they require specialized education and, in some cases, a certificate in industrial management or similar industry.
“It drives people to educate themselves,” he said. “Because the old jobs that at one time we had didn’t require much more past a high school education — if that even.”
CAC is filling the need through certificate programs like Automated Industrial Technology — something that may become more critical as the tech sector continues to integrate more autonomy into everyday products.
Having a specialized workforce within the county might also serve to attract more companies that rely heavily on technology to the region, Kanavel said.
From there, it’s a domino effect, with availability of more local jobs enabling the county to retain a larger percentage of the workforce it typically loses to Maricopa and Pima counties on a daily basis.
Approximately 100,000 people of the 190,000 that comprise Pinal’s total workforce commute to other counties for work every day. When fewer people commute beyond the county lines, local retail also stands to benefit.
“People tend to buy where they work. They’re familiar with it, it’s on the way home or on the way there,” Kanavel said. “We can lower our retail leakage considerably by creating the jobs here.”
More manufacturing jobs may also mean more jobs in general thanks to the multiplier effect, he noted. For every person employed at a plant like the Lucid facility, 2.9 jobs are created in other industries.
With companies like Lucid touting that they will directly employ 2,000 people at full build-out, the facility will likely result in the creation of nearly 6,000 indirect jobs.
With more employers and employees operating within the county lines, the infrastructure they depend on — which includes everything from roads to fiber networks — must be expanded.
“We have to have good road and utility infrastructure to be able to support these businesses,” Kanavel said. “These are not small businesses — we’re talking a thousand employees and (about) $1 billion (in valuation), or even over $1 billion.”
Most recently a state appeals court gave a ruling that would enable the collection of a county-wide sales tax to bring additional thoroughfares to the area through the Regional Transportation Plan. The plan provides funding for projects like the North-South Corridor in Coolidge and Florence and the East-West Corridor from Maricopa through a half-cent sales tax increase.
The improvement of roadway and transportation systems creates a ripple effect, Kanavel said, driving even more economic development to the area.
New roads also pave the way for the installation of other critical services, making once-rural parts of the county prime spots for development.
“Those right of ways and those roadways give access to corridors that then become (pathways) for other infrastructure such as gas lines, water lines, sewer lines and fiber lines,” Andersen said.
An example of this effect is the ancillary installation of fiber optics near rail lines. Many telecommunication companies install trunk lines parallel to railroad tracks because rail routes provide an unencumbered pathway to follow.
Dark (or unused) fiber availability has become a critical selling point for many tech companies on location as more companies opt for the network’s speed and readability.
According to Coolidge City Manager Rick Miller, there are other industries within the tech sector that also stand to benefit from the enhancement of utility and network infrastructure, like data centers.
Saint Holdings’s portfolio currently includes a mega-site for a data center near Selma Highway and State Route 87. At 640 acres, Andersen believes the site will accommodate both a data center and the solar generation to help power the facility.
Located not far from the San Carlos Irrigation Project’s La Palma Substation, the acreage is also where the lines for seven fiber providers meet.
Those types of offerings in a community that was once largely agricultural is supercharging Pinal’s reputation as a hub for innovation in the future. County officials are hoping to solidify that status over the next 35 years through another project.
Arizona Innovation & Technology Corridor
While the automotive industry may prove to be a critical player when it comes to driving economic development within Pinal County, other industries are also seeing the area as a breeding ground for innovation.
Pinal is gaining traction among organizations incorporating greater use of high-tech equipment into their daily operations, ranging from bio-agriculture corporations to the U.S. military.
To sustain the tech-friendly shift Pinal is taking on, the county officials are working with nearby educational institutions to establish a tech corridor, extending from northern Pinal near Maricopa to the University of Arizona Tech Park in Pima County.
“It would be one of the largest corridors in the world for high tech,” Kanavel said. “We are right in the middle of two giant metro areas with two research universities, plus all the community colleges including our own. So what we’re going to do is maximize those opportunities.”
In addition, the county is also partnering with the UA McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship on a study that will help determine what other enterprises Pinal could obtain.
The study also looks at what infrastructure the county will need to enhance to accomodate other types of tech businesses.
Developing the Innovation & Tech Corridor is a project that would last about 35 years and, according to Kanavel, could bring in up to $50 billion in new corporations and enterprises into Pinal. The project also would bring with it a likelihood of developing about 75,000 new jobs.
But the present focus for Pinal County in terms of economic development is attracting businesses in the automotive industry, which extends from manufacturers to test tracks like Attesa and even the development of farm equipment.
Over the last decade, a movement has taken root among communities around the world to use sensors and other high-tech equipment to make the daily operations of cities run more smoothly.
The trend has involved relying on the Internet of Things to do everything from monitoring traffic to detecting crimes.
“There are smart street lights that can triangulate the sound of gunfire, so you know where the gunfire is... there are multiple technologies that can help us provide our services in a better way,” Miller said.
“We need to be a ‘Smart County’” Kanavel said. “We have to be connected. We need to connect everybody together because that’s what it’s going to take to make this high-tech culture go forward. It wasn’t necessary before, but it is now.”
Smart cities will also likely be a natural evolution for many communities as a highly skilled workforce begins to settle into the region. A highly educated community, Kanavel noted, typical demands connectivity — something large municipalities like Casa Grande and Maricopa have witnessed.
But scaling to become a smart city goes beyond data collection. Initiatives are also about replacing outdated city systems with energy-efficient and cost-saving equipment, Coolidge Development Services Director Gilbert Lopez said.
In Coolidge that has included things like swapping out high-pressure sodium streetlights with LEDs, which officials anticipate will save money within the city’s budget over time, and installing solar systems to offset energy costs on pumps at the wastewater treatment plant.
The move toward a “Smart County” may also find its roots in autonomy, Andersen noted.
There are approximately seven fiber providers now located within the region. In addition many fiber lines connecting larger municipalities like Tucson and Phoenix run through Pinal — all factors that may ultimately work in the county’s favor.
“We’re going to be very well positioned to be at the forefront of any technology a Smart City, Smart County or autonomous vehicles are going to need,” Andersen said.
Technology is also raising the bar when it comes to the potential future for municipal airports.
Down the line the Coolidge Municipal Airport may just transform into a spaceport. As such, the airport would play a pivotal role in horizontal launches, Miller noted. Unlike vertical launches, the former launches satellites and other suborbital vehicles into space off the back of an aircraft.
Spaceports require longer runways. The expansion of the Coolidge Airport’s runway is already outlined in the facility’s master plan.
Spaceports call for a runway that is about 8,100 feet. The airport master plan for Coolidge outlines that the 5,500-foot runway will eventually be expanded to that requisite length.
There is enough room, however, for the runway to be extended out to 10,000 feet Miller said.
Surrounded by ample state land, the Coolidge airport may be the ideal location of such a port given the existing potential for expansion.
“If we could get this long-range plan in place and start attracting companies to the airport that maybe want to use the airport for research and development, why not?” Miller said.
The development of a spaceport in Coolidge, Lopez noted, would be less about competing with local communities and more about helping Pinal County compete on a national scale.
Currently there are about 11 spaceports around the country.
“The benefits are for all of us,” he said. “It’s not just a local thing.”
Quality of Life
With a myriad of startups specializing in niche areas of the tech industry comes a specialized workforce. And with a specialized workforce comes the benefits of higher wages.
“As you can imagine, when (people are) getting those $60,000 to $65,0000 a year wages — which is way higher than what the average is now in our county — and you just happen to have maybe two people from the same household working there, you’re changing the entire culture for our county,” Kanavel said.
Higher wages will also equal a higher standard of living around Pinal County, which is, in part, the reason the county has put so much emphasis on bringing in tech corporations.
Given the trend in incorporating more technology into a variety of industries, like agriculture, food delivery and manufacturing, jobs within the tech sector will likely be much more sustainable as well.
But more and more, welcoming a high-tech future for Pinal County is dependent upon partnerships between local communities and area businesses.
Within communities like Coolidge, that includes working with electricity providers like Arizona Public Service Co. to determine where key facilities like EV charging stations will be located around the city.
“We’re really at the epicenter — we are the crossroads — where a lot of these big providers, whether they are international, national or local, come together,” Andersen said. “Whether you’re connecting the East Coast with the West Coast (or) whether you’re connecting New Mexico with California, they’ve got to come through Arizona. And where do they come through? They all come through Pinal County.”