Living the Dream in America’s Southwest
City of Maricopa
Once named Maricopa Wells and then Maricopaville, the present day City of Maricopa is located 15 miles southwest of Chandler, in the Gila River Valley and has a population of approximately 50,000. The city is the second most populous in Pinal county and is part of the Phoenix metropolitan area.
Maricopa’s location has historically proven to be of prime importance as the community grew and developed. Not only was it once a major junction for the Southern Pacific and Phoenix Railroads, but several state rivers make the city an oasis in the state’s southwest.
Transportation infrastructure, particularly rail, has traditionally played a vital role in community settlement. It was the introduction of an efficient system of rail that spurred the appearance of rail towns – often overnight – in many once uninhabited or sparsely populated areas of the United States. These towns were eager to take advantage of an efficient means to move both people and products.
Most of these communities flourished, as long as the rail system was maintained. Other communities relocated along with rail route changes in an attempt to follow the track of prosperity. Such was the case for Maricopa, Arizona which has changed its location, by a few miles, three times since the mid-1800s to follow the development of railroad lines.
Incorporated in 2003, Maricopa is ideally situated in the ‘sun corridor’. The sun corridor is “that growing megalopolis of citizenry between Phoenix [36 miles to the north) and Tucson [96 miles to the south], as it grows up and down the Interstate 10,” explains Maricopa Mayor Christian Price. The Interstate 10 is the nation’s southernmost coast-to-coast highway and connects to Phoenix, Tucson and Los Angeles, providing access to Southwest markets.
The main route into the city is State Route 347 which connects to Interstate 10 and the old rail line from Maricopa to Tempe, 30 miles to the north. “We’re right on the cross-sections where the railroad used to be and the 347,” he says. “It positions us perfectly for growth.” He relates that, as the nearby communities of Chandler and Ahwatukee run out of land for expansion by being buffered by the Gila River Indian Community, “Maricopa is just the next jump over. We’re kind of that next step.”
Denyse Airheart, the city’s Interim Economic Development Director, also shares that Maricopa is only one-third developed and, although nestled between the Gila River and Ak-Chin Indian Communities, “we do have the ability to expand and be much larger than we are today.”
By rail, numerous freight trains operate through the city along Union Pacific Railroad, a route paralleling the Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway and Route 347. This presents an opportunity for rail-to-site transport for many commercially zoned areas within the city.
Maricopa is also only 32 miles to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the United States with over 100,000 passengers served by 17 major airlines. The airport processes over 600 tons of cargo daily and also facilitates 80 domestic and 17 international destinations.
Maricopa’s city-owned 52-acre Estrella Gin Business Park is a recently approved, mixed-use project anticipated to include a mix of industrial, office, and flex space. The multi-phased project is the city’s first business park, and the site will include the relocation of the Amtrack Station. “It is in the process of being marketed to potential tenants,” says Mayor Price. “The Boyer Company has hired DTZ Commercial Real Estate to promote and market the site.” It is hoped the new park will encourage further economic growth by accommodating expanding or new businesses. It should also generate jobs and save residents a commute to Phoenix (eighty percent of residents make this commute).
Mayor Price affirms that Maricopa is a big proponent of public-private partnerships like the one with the park developer, Salt Lake City-based Boyer Company. “It offers a real cost savings per square foot for businesses interested in leasing out space at Estrella Gin,” he says.
“[Boyer] was a good fit for the city of Maricopa,” adds Denyse. “They have experience with similar projects in the Arizona market. Once it’s at complete build out, you’re talking about over 200,000 square feet of office space, flex space and light industrial, offering space to a variety of potential tenants in City of Maricopa.”
The Estrella Gin Business Park will provide a solution for the businesses in the city that currently don’t have a physical building. Maricopa has over 600 home-based businesses, and the city has limited office and commercial existing buildings. The Estrella Gin is going to give not only local businesses, but outside interests an opportunity, “to come in and invest in the community”.
The city also has eighteen acres ready for development on its Copper Sky Commercial site in the southernmost part of the city. The site is located on the main retail corridor – the State Route 347 – with north-south connections to the I-10 and I-8. It is hoped that the mixed-use site will attract corporate retailers, restaurants and a hotel to meet the needs of residents and create a sense of place within the community.
Copper Sky Commercial is adjacent to Maricopa’s very popular Copper Sky Recreation Complex which opened in 2014. An award-winning complex, it serves as a multi-generational destination for sports, fitness, tournaments and community events. The recreation complex saw more than 500,000 visitors the first year, good news for the Copper Sky Commercial site. “It has allowed us to start to market the successes of the regional park,” shares Mayor Price. “The idea is to have a fully developed commercial area.”
“I always tell people that we’re like a spider web: almost anything that comes through, we’re happy to grab,” he chuckles.
The city’s business incubator program was launched, in 2013, to assist and complement entrepreneurship and small business growth. The Maricopa Center for Entrepreneurship (MCE) aids companies with support, services and resources to ensure not only self-sufficiency, but community wealth and employment. Entrepreneurs, home businesses and start-ups are eligible for close to $123,000 in funding through the Revolving Loan Fund, funded by a USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) rural development grant.
The city has numerous home-based businesses that may not have the resources required for expansion and success. “You need to be fostering that relationship with these young entrepreneurs and young businesses. It takes us to the next level of growing our own businesses and diversifies our economy.”
The city has a number of fundamental factors that will aid in attracting employers into the community. “The strengths of the community,” Denyse calls them. Some considered elements include the age of residents (the average age is 33), their level of education and pro-business climate. “These are some key drivers for employers considering locating in the community.”
Maricopa has a very strong history in the agricultural sector. Its desert land created an excellent landscape for farming, the raising of cattle and growing of cotton. In fact, Pinal County is the state’s largest producer of cotton.
Although the agricultural sector is still a mainstay for the county, the focus is turning toward agritech and research companies that will add value to the burgeoning technology sector.
As it is home to a cluster of agritech businesses and research facilities, such as the USDA Arid-Land Agricultural Research Center, the city has partnered with University of Arizona Maricopa Agricultural Center. This research facility is focused on enhancing water conservation and crop productivity in irrigated agriculture, genetic improvement and phenotyping of cotton and genetic analysis of abiotic stress tolerance and oil production pathways in cotton, bioenergy and other industrial crops.
“Targeting those agritech and cleantech sectors would be a natural progression for the community,” says Denyse. She notes other target sectors include health services, technology and professional services. “The community is poised for growth. It’s a unique time for the city,” she adds. “We have analyzed our community’s strengths and are actively pursuing firms; we are following up on leads and focusing on building relationships.”
“Anytime you go from 1100 residents and all farm land to 50,000 people and sudden urbanization, you have a foot on each side of that line that you’re straddling,” explains Mayor Price.
He compares Maricopa to the nearby community of Gilbert, 32 miles to the north, which has a healthy mixture of urban and rural. “We’re looking for that careful balance.”
Mayor Price explains that Maricopa has essentially “exploded overnight.” This means that, “everybody that moved here has come from somewhere else that is more established than we are… yet when people come to visit, they fall in love with us.”
Maricopa’s 2040 Vision and Strategic Plan was recently drafted. The document is citizen driven and is a grassroots approach addressing city planning processes as it moves forward. “Anytime you’re dealing with a strategic plan, you’re dealing with long-term visions as well as short term ones,” shares Mayor Price. Denyse concurs. “We have focused our efforts on identifying where we want to be in the future and designing a tactical approach on getting there.”
“Maricopa has a great story,” says Mayor Price. “It’s someplace where you can come and make something of yourself. I think it’s a small version of the American dream.”