Pinal and Gila counties could have been siblings.
Both started as ranching and mining communities.
Both were rural, with no big population center.
Both struggled to create an economic base to provide good jobs.
But then, Pinal took a different path.
As a result, in the last 10 years Pinal has boomed while Gila struggled to escape the recession.
“We have the lowest poverty rate in the state,” said Timothy Kanavel, Economic Development program manager for Pinal County. “We’ve also lowered our property taxes for the third year in a row.”
Kanavel has spent his career in economic development. He served as the rural economic development manager for the Arizona Department of Commerce before joining Pinal County in 2009.
He explained how Pinal County has gone from sleepy bedroom community to economic powerhouse during his presentation at the Arizona Association for Economic Development meeting in Payson earlier this month.
“We are pushing our assets,” he told the economic development leaders at the AAED meeting.
Pinal has I-10 running through it and lies between the two largest cities in the state — Phoenix and Tucson.
“We’re the Oreo cookie county,” said Kanavel.
Pinal also has natural resources.
“We are bringing in thousands of dollars of industrial business,” said Kanavel.
Gila County does not have the same assets Pinal does, but Kanavel believes Gila could follow the Pinal example by creating a strategic plan and committing to economic development.
In order to start, “you have to have a unified vision” — not easy to do because “people don’t like change,” said Kanavel.
The voters of Pinal jump-started the economic development conversation.
When families moved to the county, they asked, “Where am I going to work? Where will my kids go to school? Where am I going to shop?” said Kanavel.
Pinal voters ousted the majority of the old supervisors and expanded the number from three to five, all elected at-large.
They realized then that if one area prospered, all areas would prosper.
They developed a new strategic plan and hired a powerhouse of a county manager.
“He was a West Point graduate, the nicest guy,” said Kanavel.
Then, the culture changed.
“We now say we are facilitators, not regulators,” said Kanavel. “Come and tell us what you want to do and we’ll figure out a way to make it happen.”
In that spirit, Pinal identified desired industries.
“In Pinal, we realized we used to be agricultural and mining so we said, ‘OK, we’ll embrace that,’” said Kanavel.
The county explored and expanded on its other assets:
• Manufacturing: Frito Lay and auto manufacturing plants are in Pinal.
• Renewable resources: There are solar, methane gas and ethanol plants.
• Health services: Hospitals and specialty clinics such as heart and kidney.
• Air, space and defense industries: Pinal has the largest National Guard Armory in Arizona.
• Tourism: Not only does Pinal have lots of places to visit, the county is looking to build a film studio.
• High tech: This is the newest addition to Pinal’s line up of industry.
“We’re declaring the I-10 corridor a ‘high-tech corridor,’” said Kanavel.
Yet the Pinal government recognizes the county doesn’t want to lose its charm.
“We’re balancing that with open spaces and trails,” said Kanavel.
As Pinal has embraced its role in creating an economic foundation for its residents, the county has reaped the benefits.
Since 2010, Pinal County’s population has increased more than 15 percent.
Pinal has a poverty level 2.5 percent lower than the rest of the state.
Nearly 90 percent of Pinal residents have a high school degree or more.
Pinal County is experiencing a growth rate of 3 percent, the fastest in the state.
In 2017, Pinal County realized $700 million in tourism dollars.
Nearly $3 billion came from agricultural related sales and business in 2017, placing Pinal in the top 2 percent of all U.S. counties in the agriculture industry.
The median household income in Pinal County is $51,190.
Gila could find inspiration in Pinal’s success.
“We started with baby steps,” said Kanavel. “We had to show benefits ... then everybody said, let’s take bigger and bigger steps.”
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