Councilmembers and department heads mulled some of the challenges of creating economic development at a retreat May 9. Photo by Mason Callejas

As the city approaches its 14th birthday, officials are reaching for the stars, hoping Maricopa’s growth will not only accelerate but also happen in a sustainable fashion.

To achieve this, the city has engaged with a third-party consultant, IO.INC, to assess the city’s economic fortitude to ensure future development parallels the city’s 2040 Strategic Plan.

At a City Council retreat, representatives from IO.INC joined department heads, the mayor and city council to discuss their assessment and offer suggested plans of action to boost economic growth.

IO.INC’s president and chief strategist Ioanna Morfessis laid out the Economic Development Strategy for Maricopa she said was based largely on an analysis of “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats,” or SWOT.

IO.INC offered remedies, which echo the Strategic Plan, emphasizing three key objectives: improving city customer service to better support businesses, maintaining the assisted growth and sustainability and providing educational opportunities.

Customer Service

The city made it a point in the Strategic Plan to assist businesses of all sizes looking to open in Maricopa. Unfortunately, Morfessis’ assessment found some businesses license applicants were dissatisfied.

City Councilmember Vincent Manfredi said things are inherently easier for bigger businesses. Those with legal help know how to navigate the licensing and permitting process, he said, whereas smaller businesses that lack legal assistance have little idea of the process.

“Economic Development should hold their hands,” Manfredi said.

After a couple of anecdotes of bad customer service experiences, Development Services Director Martin Scribner said he was not aware of any such incidents, or he would have corrected them.

As much as he would like to help everyone, he said, some people just don’t get it. For some of these businesses, he said, “it’s not just holding their hand; it’s breast feeding.”

Continuing the metaphor, Scribner said “sometimes they just don’t take.”

Sustainability

Trying to avoid any potential boom-and-bust scenarios, the city has made multiple efforts to invest in long-term developments for both small business and the larger light-industrial sectors.

These efforts are apparent chiefly in the project at Estrella Gin Business Park and in the city’s support of the Maricopa Center for Entrepreneurship, neither of which has seen success.

Several aspiring renters at the Estrella Gin Site have been reluctant, citing high prices. The cost was lowered to around $9 per square foot annually, but comparative light-industrial space in Chandler can be found for as little as $6 per square foot.

Would-be tenants have also cited higher-than-average utility costs in Maricopa as a reason they would not want to develop in the city.

Questions were raised during the retreat about the return the city has seen on its investment in MCE.

At the April 18 City Council meeting, MCE Director Quintin Baker provided an update of his efforts, which seemed to be more nuanced than precisely measurable. Since joining the organization in November, Baker believes he has made improvements in the review process and in tracking growth of client businesses.

Baker has not, however, been able to provide specific client growth data, nor has he been able to provide details regarding MCE distribution of small business loans funded by the federal M-Loan program issued via the city.

To the former, Baker said they are helping businesses develop systems to track their growth. Baker said the M-Loans are simply “being reviewed.”

Aside from a lack of concrete assessment, Councilmember Peg Chapados indicated further concern she had with MCE considering neither Baker nor any representative from the organization was present at the City Council retreat.

Baker said he wasn’t made aware of the meeting.

Education

The demographic study conducted by IO.INC indicated around 37 percent of Maricopa residents possessed a higher education of two years or more. This fact, Morfessis said, is a good sign for businesses looking at Maricopa.

“If we can get them here, we have a qualified workforce,” Morfessis said.

Knowing considerable growth occurs around industries not dependent on college degrees, Mayor Christian Price suggested an emphasis on vocational and entrepreneurial training is equally important.

Utilizing a collaboration between local businesses, high schools and community colleges, he said, is just as important as having a high average of bachelor’s degrees.

Also, Morfessis said the city is seen by some as having a “love affair with charter schools.”

She claims this can be seen as a positive attribute when drawing in businesses with employees concerned about school choice, or a negative attribute as some view that support comes at the expense of the local public schools, a factor that could drive potential industries away.

Flood Plain

A fourth obstacle mentioned at the meeting – which, aside from string-pulling, the city has little recourse to correct – was the flood plain.

Much of Maricopa’s undeveloped land lies in that flood plain. For the past several months the city has been awaiting a final adjusted analysis of Maricopa’s flood risk under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s risk assessment.

If the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA deliver new higher flow rates, which the city believes they will, Maricopa will have to reassess their flood mitigation plan. That included channelizing the flood plain for a heavier flow. These efforts could double or triple the cost of the mitigation plan.

Morfessis and most city officials present concurred this reassessment is one of Maricopa’s greatest issues at hand.

“We have to solve this flood-plain problem,” Morfessis said.

Crossing his fingers, Price said the city might have people close to President Trump who may be able to help.

Morfessis said, “That’s great; maybe we can Trumpify it.”


This story appears in the June issue of InMaricopa.

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