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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

March 18, 2010 at 9:40 AM

By the time you get to Phoenix: Spring training and economic lessons (plus, the best Mexican food)

Mariners fans from Seattle are no doubt enjoying the sun in Phoenix. They also have a front-row seat on how not to run a metropolitan economy. Phoenix is not merely in recession but outright depression, being ground zero for both the residential housing collapse and now the meltdown in commercial real estate.

Phoenix, my hometown, was once a sweet if flawed paradise. It was a farm town grown large by 1960, but visionary leaders had brought in industries such as semiconductors and aerospace. But eventually population increases and sprawl building overwhelmed any other economic development efforts. The money seemed easy, at least to those running the growth machine. Why do more? Now Phoenix is the nation’s fifth most populous city and 13th most populous metro, but it ranks far lower on other scales. Seattle residents would look in vain for the diverse economy back home.

Incomes are far below peer metros; Arizona has some of the worst-funded schools in the nation, and not surprisingly, Phoenix has one of the least literate cities; yesterday’s suburbs are today’s linear slums, as the people with means kept moving farther out to new sprawl; the old stewards died off and the city lacks the kinds of giving and community cohesion enjoyed by Seattle. Infrastructure is lacking — it never kept up with growth, a public cost being pushed ahead into the future. Bitter fights between the city and suburbs further hold back progress. Civic participation and giving are low: For most people, this isn’t “home.” They either want to be left alone in the sun — or are working two jobs just to stay afloat.

Beyond the remnants of the chip industry and a few other nodes, its economy is based on real estate and tourism — and ever rising population. Now population growth has slowed, perhaps stopped growing entirely, and the old sprawl machine is in ruins. Political extremism and anti-immigrant sentiment stand in the way of quality economic diversification, and the area has a huge underclass cut off from opportunity. Low taxes and light regulation have not built a great economy — state finances are in ruins, with even rest areas being closed and the state parks system in doubt. There is another economy: Phoenix is the nation’s hub for people smuggling, gun running to the Mexican cartels and illegal drug distribution.

Phoenix is unsustainability, and for more the economic reasons.

The Big Secret: Phoenix lacks the water to continue its sprawl-based expansion. The Colorado River is oversubscribed by states, and its allocations were based on a 500-year high of river flows. The lakes on the Salt and Verde rivers depend on snow pack that is unlikely to be sustained with climate change (paving over the agriculture has already caused temperatures to rise 10 degrees since I was a boy, making the summers hotter and longer). Ground water is being relentlessly pumped out around the state.

So look around, enjoy the sun, and say, “Don’t do this at home.” Seattle’s biggest advantages have been real community stewards, ones that reinvested here, and the ability to reinvent itself.

That said, there is still magic to be found in Phoenix. The best Mexican food: Los Dos Molinos, Carolina’s, the Tee Pee and the night-time taco trucks in Phoenix; La Perla in downtown Glendale, and Los Olivos in Scottsdale. For more upscale Mexican: Barrio Cafe and Los Sombreros. Martinis: Durant’s (an old mob hangout complete with red banquettes and entry through the kitchen) and Portland’s in Midtown Phoenix. While there, you can see the lovely historic districts of old Phoenix, real walkable neighborhoods with front porches, parks and people who care.

The Phoenix Art Museum and Heard Museum are cultural gems, built despite the anti-learnin’ prejudice of the Midwesterners who have done so much harm with their in-migration. The museums are on the light-rail line, which can also take you to downtown Phoenix and into Tempe (pronounced TEM-pee). It’s convenient and safe, a well-done piece of transit in a major city otherwise so lacking in this essential asset for the future.

Papago Park has the magical Desert Botanical Garden, and South Mountain Park is the nation’s largest municipal park, with bountiful desert hiking (don’t wear shorts), and a stunning overlook you can reach by car. North Scottsdale? It may be worth seeing if only for the freak-show appeal of seeing how people can waste so much money. The old downtown Scottsdale is more charming.

As for baseball, check out Chase Field in downtown Phoenix, to see how the Diamondbacks play when it’s 114 degrees outside (150 on the sidewalk). The sweetest, most authentic spring training stadium is to be found in Maryvale, where the Brewers play.

Enjoy, but don’t forget the lessons to be learned.

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