- By DAVID LOUIS Today’s News-Herald
As one of eight finalists still in the running for Frontier Communications’ “America’s Best Communities,” Lake Havasu City finds itself ratcheting up competition efforts in order to take home the gold April 2017.
With a top prize totaling $3.5 million for economic development, in addition to $100,000 going to each of the finalists used to develop local site-specific agendas, the stakes could not be much higher.
Lake Havasu’s local plan is “Vision 20/20,” which focuses on improving economic opportunities, educational programs, water management, attracting businesses, expanding tourism and improving residents’ quality of life.
Vision 20/20 is an initiative designed to transform Lake Havasu City by focusing on a common mission to reverse the current economic trend to begin cycling back to net gains for a healthy economy. Community collaborators include non-profit organizations, education institutions, government entities and private businesses to name a few.
James Gray, Partnership for Economic Development (PED) executive director, is excited to be part of the combined effort.
“This competition has really become a catalyst of taking rural communities and challenging them on what they are doing. Is the goal front and center to always accepting a lag rate of eight to 12 years, slowly implementing plans that were already done? This creates fatigue,” Gray said.
“People are still wondering why we aren’t Scottsdale or Palm Springs. We seem to have put plans in place that even if you are slowly make some amount of traction on it still feels like you’re failing, because you’re still doing what people did 15 years ago.”
Some of the new theories born out of Vision 20/20 had the ultimate result of Lake Havasu being named as a finalist.
“Our plan is a little bit more progressive,” Gray said. “In fact, our plan does not take into account other people. We are not waiting to attract businesses. It’s the spirit of building entrepreneurial hubs. We’re not going to copy anyone else. It’s all about doubling down on what we are doing.”
PED It was established in 1993 out of an Arizona town hall where stakeholders representing many industries came to the realization that towns throughout the state “needed to get in the game” of economic development. So, entities like PED were created.
For Lake Havasu City, its rural setting will always create an uphill battle in economic development, Gray said.
“In many places you have a situation where a town is desirable to one set of people and desirable to another set, which is not the story of just Lake Havasu it’s the story of all of our rural towns,” Gray said.
With more than 20 metro hubs scattered across the country, which contain the largest concentration of jobs and an embrace by its population for future growth, it’s no wonder rural America often lags behind in development, Gray added.
“As the metros’ road widens the opportunities in the scales of economy grows,” Gray said. “But, in post NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the global shift of outsourcing jobs, we’ve lost almost 60,000 factories of 50 people or more. These are rural jobs and that hurts.”
Another factor that also hurts many rural communities is the lack of shovel-ready construction sites with utilities already in place.
“We don’t have a lot of shovel-ready sites,” Gray said.
“Shovel-ready site availability right now, because we’ve been growing and things are in an upward trajectory again, is becoming problematic. Usually when I source a site I go through brokers, and with my last client every broker shut me down. I was lucky to get a few sites where leases were coming up.
“This shows if I can’t find something in 5,000 square feet that’s ready to be leased it’s a huge problem, but to the bigger narrative, no, it’s not our problem.”
Prior to 2008 it may have been the problem, Gray admitted, but now it’s a town that is “out” of balance.
“The core driver with what we are trying to fix is what we call demographic starvation, in reality involving our workforce,” he added. “Our average age is 53 and the national average is 37. To be competent we have to move that down.”
Also in the mix of new theories from Vision 20/20 is a different way of looking at the politics of development.
“Past politics focused on what we did best, but now many municipalities are not looking at what they do best, but are working on their weaknesses,” Gray said.
“We’ve already won the baby boomer market. They love this place. But, if you’re going to invest in one more thing for people who love us that’s not helpful. What we need is to go in there and start working on things that young people want. We need to identify the concerns of the workforce. If you don’t have the basics to build the future it’s not going to happen.”