Although the recession may be technically over, rural communities still lag behind metropolitan areas as they recover, Cottonwood Mayor Diane Joens said.
“Families are struggling and continue to struggle,” Joens said. “One of the greatest economic engines was development and construction work, and that has pretty much died.”
Joens and others addressed those challenges Thursday at the 2010 Governor’s Rural and Regional Economic Development Conference.
While growth in urban areas is important, both rural and urban areas are critical to boosting overall statewide economic growth, said Don Cardon, president and CEO of the new Arizona Commerce Authority and director of the state Commerce Department.
“We are collectively a state; that’s why we are putting emphasis on rural America,” Cardon said. “It’s not rocket science to know people in rural areas are challenged.”
Gov. Jan Brewer was to attend the conference Friday to launch a Rural Business Advisory Council.
The group will promote regional cooperation and aims to give rural areas a voice, said David Drennon, a spokesman for the state Commerce Department.
“The process has more inclusion than ever before because it has everyone at the table,” Drennon said.
While rural communities continue to lag behind metropolitan areas, they can harness the power of new technologies such as solar power as well as utilize natural resources for mining and agriculture, Cardon said.
Joens said Cottonwood is making some progress, but she added that rural communities still face struggles as the nation pulls itself out of the recession.
“Arizona as a state is in a very fragile position,” she said.
While many small communities have high unemployment rates, they can better promote economic growth when they work together, according to Eric Canada, who runs an economic consulting firm that works with cities and towns in Canada and the U.S.
“Infrastructure in rural areas often lags behind the need,” Canada said. “No one has enough resources, so they’ve got to work together regionally.”
Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup said larger cities have to be willing to take a backseat to work hand-in-hand with the smaller communities around them.
“If Tucson starts thinking its a big city, then all the smaller municipal governments around Tucson kind of get left out,” he said. “We have to be willing to have one vote along with all of the smaller municipalities.”
Walkup said bringing renewable energy companies to the state and linking cities and smaller municipalities via mass transit are ways the state can benefit as the economy improves.
“I’m here because I recognize regionalism,” said Walkup. “If we are going to be successful we all have to function as a region … our problems are all the same.”
Census facts about rural Arizona:
• 11 percent percent of the Arizona’s population lives in rural areas.
• 20 percent of rural Arizona residents lived below the poverty line as of 2008 versus 14 percent in urban areas.
• Unemployment among rural Arizona residents runs 11 percent versus 9 percent in urban areas.