Signs of life in AZ economy
Randy Metcalf/The Explorer, Despite the economic outlook, many companies are still moving to and expanding in southern Arizona. Sanofi-aventis recently completed an expansion in Oro Valley where workers research prospect compounds for pharmaceutical drugs.

Things aren't that bad in Arizona.

That's the message from the Arizona Association for Economic Development, which held a luncheon at the Manning House in downtown Tucson on Wednesday, July 28.

"You'll notice there is some action in Arizona — it's not all doom and gloom," said Barry Albrecht, with the Central Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation.

Albrecht, along with Oro Valley Economic Development Coordinator Amanda Jacobs, spoke to a group of business leaders about the light points in an economy that's often depicted as dark.

Across the state, Albrecht said, many large-scale projects have moved forward despite the flagging economy and high unemployment.

Albrecht went over a list of projects under way, like a sports-training facility in Casa Grande, a $24 million expansion at the Pinal Airpark Western Army National Guard Aviation Training Site, and other aviation industry projects near Coolidge.

He also noted the short- and long-term economic impacts of the multi-phased Interstate 10 widening projects.

"That's what's going to kick the Sun Corridor doors open," Albrecht said.

Jacobs told the group about Oro Valley's efforts to change its reputation in the business and development community by moving building projects along faster. The town has long been known for exacting development standards.

"I'm here to tell you today that we've listened," Jacobs said.

The town has recently undergone numerous changes to its development review process, including a multi-department consolidation aimed at streamlining.

Oro Valley leaders also have been considering the elimination of the citizen-led development review board, which could trim additional time off the approval process.

The changes come as welcome news to David Pittman, southern Arizona director for the Arizona Builders' Alliance, a trade association that represents commercial builders.

"The Arizona Builders' Alliance is very encouraged at the efforts to streamline the development services process in the Town of Oro Valley," Pittman said.

Jacobs also discussed some recent expansions and moves into Oro Valley, including the ongoing growth of Ventana Medical Systems, the construction of BASIS Charter School and the University of Arizona's purchase of the former sanofi-aventis laboratory facility in Oro Valley.

"Hopefully, that will allow more incubator opportunities," Jacobs said.

In addition, Jacobs said numerous restaurants have opened or plan to open in Oro Valley.

According to analysts with the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management, unemployment remains at levels not seen in the state for more since the early 1980s.

"The economy certainly is not dead," said Marshall Vest, director of economic and business research at the Eller College. "It's not broken, but it's badly bent."

Statewide unemployment stands at 9.6 percent, with nearly 300,000 people out of work.

In the Phoenix area, unemployment is at 9.2 percent, and there are 183,000 people without jobs. Tucson fares slightly better, with 9 percent unemployment and nearly 42,000 people out of work.

Vest said the state might not recover from the current downturn until 2014. But, according to Vest, the economy has a long way to climb before it reaches levels seen in the peak years of 2005 and 2006.

"We've essentially lost a decade of growth with this recession," Vest said.

Construction trades have arguably suffered more than any sector of the state's economy. At the recent apex of growth in 2006, more than 28,000 people in Pima County held construction industry jobs. Today, about 15,000 of the jobs remain, Vest said.

"There's very little commercial construction activity going on," Vest said.

Where work is happening, much of it has been fueled by federal stimulus dollars, he added.

Vest points to signs of life. Retail activity has increased, along with growth in healthcare and trades and business services, Vest said. And the Tucson area has seen an increase in the total number of jobs for the first time since 2008.

"In the last six months we've created 4,500 jobs," Vest said.

That's more of the sort of talk Albrecht and others working in economic development would like people to hear.

"Southern Arizona has grown a business base that we rarely see in the papers," Albrecht said.

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