Once the recession recedes, Arizona will likely resume rapid growth that will increasingly make Rim Country a satellite of a “megalopolis” stretching from Phoenix to Tucson, said Nancy Welch, assistant director of the ASU-based Morrison Institute.
Short term, she said the state was in a “pickle” with a $3 billion deficit on a $10 billion state budget. However, in the long run, the key to the state’s future lies in adapting the educational system to support a creative, “knowledge-based” economy, she told a group of business leaders at the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Business Buzz luncheon on Thursday.
Rick Heffernon, a former editor of the Payson Roundup and now a policy analyst for ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, said Payson has made great strides in preparing for that future by developing an “assured” water supply and investing in quality of life projects — like Green Valley Park.
Welch said that the urban corridor from Phoenix to Tucson has become one of 20 “megapolitan” areas, which projections suggest will absorb the next 100 million Americans.
Demographic trends ensure that minorities already constitute 40 percent of the people living in that key corridor.
Moreover, today fewer workers support more retirees and more children than at nearly any time in the nation’s history — with Arizona ranking especially high on that “dependency” sale. The high number or “dependents” per worker in Arizona reflects both the large families in the rapidly growing Hispanic portion of the population and the region’s appeal to retirees.
Those trends mean that the region’s future depends on developing a critical, flexible economy that can take advantage of a shift toward profits based on generating and managing information. And that, in turn, means the region will become more and more dependent on the educational system — a sector suffering from deep cuts in the current budget crisis.
Unfortunately, Arizona scores near the bottom on many measurements of the educational system, she said.
Moreover, “We’ll see 80 to 90 percent of the population concentrated in just a few urban areas,” she said.
That means outlying areas like Rim Country will increasingly become economic satellites of those urban concentrations — a trend that has been accelerating for most of the last century.
Heffernon, a 30-year resident of Rim Country, agreed — but said the high country has already taken key steps to prepare for that future.
Most prominently, he cited the proposed pipeline from the Blue Ridge Reservoir, which will supply more than enough water for Payson’s planned build-out population of 38,000.
The key to profiting from those future trends that will likely drive the state’s population above 10 million lies in adopting “sustainable” practices, he said. Payson’s purchase of the local water company, 20-year quest for the Blue Ridge water, emphasis on water conservation and the use of wastewater to create amenities like the Green Valley Park and system of lakes provides a good example, he said.
“You have to think long term,” said Heffernon — citing a “seven generation” viewpoint when planning for basic needs like water and economic growth and diversity.
Key challenges for the future include making Main Street viable and developing a “sustainable” wood products industry, that can turn a profit on the thinning of the forest needed to protect Rim settlements from wildfires.
“Payson may be the heart of Arizona — but Main Street is the heart of that heart,” said Heffernon.