Arizona is the nation’s sixth-largest state by area and offers residents a varied geography to enjoy, such as the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the north and the subtle beauty of the Sonoran Desert in the south. Even though there is diversity of both communities and landscapes in Arizona, much of the economic development coverage focuses on the state’s two largest population centers: Phoenix and Tucson. That’s why the Arizona Association for Economic Development (AAED) hosted panelists to discuss economic development issues across the state, with one panel highlighting the obstacles rural Arizona areas face and the successes they’ve enjoyed. 

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“Economic development is considering the whole picture of how you build a vibrant and cohesive community,” explains Katie Hurst, executive director of AAED. “It’s about attracting the right businesses for that particular city, state, county entity, or whatever it is, and making sure both the businesses and the community benefit. Part of the effort is having the infrastructure to support not only those companies, but the direct employees, supporting organizations, restaurants and schools to coordinate between those different entities to build a vibrant, scaling, growing community.”

That said, there’s nothing easy about economic development in rural areas, according to Mignonne Hollis, executive director of Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation.

“We have the same challenges as the urban areas, but they just look a bit different,” she says. “We always say that if you’ve been to one rural community, you’ve been to one rural community — because they all feel different.”

Working together

Tom Pitts, owner of Tom Pitts Consulting, lives in Jerome but works across the Verde Valley region. He says Jerome is about as tiny and rural as a town can get, with a population of a little more than 400 residents. Despite having so few permanent residents, Jerome sees approximately 2 million visitors each year. 

“With the population size and density we deal with, when it’s time to put a major project together, it requires collaboration,” Pitts says. “One of the cornerstones of AAED is collaboration, so it’s important to know how to take [a rural community’s] strengths and work with other folks to put together the appropriate package to make things happen. Bottom line is, you’re not going to build Lucid Motors or TSMC factories in Downtown Phoenix. You need some land to do that.”

Greater Phoenix represents about 65% of the state’s population — and political representation — but just 8% of Arizona’s total landmass.

“That means the rest of us have to figure out what to do with the remaining 35% of muscle when it comes to getting things done,” Pitts continues. “But we have all of that land and opportunity, and that’s where rural development really starts to make sense in Arizona.”

Building on a rural community’s strengths leads to success, says Tim Suan, deputy town manager of Wickenburg, since there is no one-size-fits-all solution for growth. 

“Not everyone wants a semiconductor manufacturing facility in their town,” he says. “Creating an economic development strategy is relative since your goals will be different [place to place].”

Communication and education are critical to marshalling support around a project, especially since new officials are frequently elected to all layers of government who are learning how to do what can be an overwhelming job. Sometimes, Pitts says, planning and zoning departments in smaller towns default to saying “no” to new developments because it feels like a safe choice since it doesn’t require getting buy-in from multiple stakeholders. 

“The difference between just planning and zoning and economic development is learning how to say yes,” Pitts says. “It’s about making a project move forward that positively affects the community.” 

Breaking down any silos that may exist is important to understand the needs within the community and reaching out to other economic developers across the state can help projects materialize. 

“I have more than 800 numbers in my phone,” Pitts notes. “When you’re trying to put a project together, knowing that you have people to call on for expertise helps things come together. You wear a lot of hats in rural Arizona, but you don’t have to do it all by yourself.”

Winning wineries in rural Arizona

Driving through rural Arizona reveals the distinct character of towns across the state. For example, Sedona’s natural — and what some consider to be supernatural — wonders are capitalized upon by Jeep adventures and vortex tours. That vibe is different from Wickenburg, known as the team roping capital of the world.

One of the great successes in Verde Valley is the growth of the wine industry there, which Pitts says is an industry created out of whole cloth in recent years. A Supreme Court ruling in 2005 invalidated sections of Arizona’s wine laws, and in 2006 a new state law came into effect that created the foundations for the industry today. 

“Since that time, 156 new winery licenses have been issued,” Pitts continues. “Up in Verde Valley, we decided to take advantage of that opportunity and we got together with the Yavapai Community College to create workforce training. And it turned out that is the only viticulture and enology program between California and Texas. We thought we were training a workforce, but we ended up training a lot of entrepreneurs.” 

The average age of students in the program was 43, and 100% of the students in the first five years of the program ended up working in the industry or creating their own company, resulting in 30 tasting rooms in Verde Valley. 

“We’ve got wineries and vineyards all over the place — literally from all the way up in Jerome down through the Verde Valley,” Pitts notes.

One important winemaker in the region is Maynard James Keenan, frontman for Tool, Puscifer and A Perfect Circle, who opened Merkin Vineyards Hilltop Winery & Trattoria, Caduceus Cellars Hilltop Facility and VSC Ventura Room in Cottonwood on Oct. 6.

“In the many years I’ve been working towards this moment, one of the things I discovered when it comes to bridging the hurdle of exposing people to Arizona wine is context,” Keenan says in a press release. “So, by putting a place like this in the middle of Cottonwood with five acres of vines, to winery facilities with a full greenhouse and a full kitchen, all the context becomes visible, and you kind of break down the barriers of whatever preconceptions you have of Arizona wines.”

Today, Verde Valley, along with Wilcox and Sonoita, have been recognized by the federal government as American Viticultural Areas, signifying those regions as having special value in growing grapes.  

“We’re talking about a brand-new industry to the state of Arizona,” Pitts concludes. “And it can only really happen in rural Arizona, because that’s where the grapes choose to grow.”