By James J. Hodl
Copper Area News Publishers
After nearly 15 years, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors appears poised to end its partnership with Gila County in conducting jobs programs under the US Workforce Investment Act (WIA).
Executives in both counties are resigned to the decoupling as the two counties have grown apart since the partnership was established in July 2000, with Pinal growing increasing suburban with population densities in its northern and western regions increasing while Gila has remained rural. As a result both now have different needs when it comes to tailoring programs to find employment for their residents and training citizens in skills required for available or future jobs.
The current WIA partnership agreement runs until July 1, 2015. During the interim, Pinal County is looking to realign with the primarily urban Maricopa County while Gila may seek to partner with another county closer to its rural makeup.
How the breakup will affect the Central Arizona Association of Governments (CAAG), under which the two counties partnered on WIA programs, is not known. A CAAG spokesman said it is likely that the two counties will continue to work through CAAG on economic development, transportation and environmental (mostly related to water and sewage) issues but not workforce issues.
“The reason we decided to end our WIA partnership with Gila County is simply that we are no longer a match,” said Anthony Smith, chairman of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors. “When we first entered the partnership, we were both rural counties. But that was before the fantastic development and growth in population around San Tan Valley and Maricopa. Now the north and west sides of Pinal County are more like Maricopa County than Gila County.”
Tim Kanavel, manager of the Pinal County Economic Development Program, was more succinct, noting, “Remember the people you knew in elementary school and met years later and found you no longer had much in common? That’s what happened to Pinal and Gila.”
In decoupling its WIA partnership with Gila County, Smith said the Pinal Board of Supervisors considered several options. These included going it alone on its WIA programs, re-partnering with Gila under a different management structure, or coupling with either Pima or Maricopa County. Maricopa seemed the best alternative considering Pinal’s high growth areas border it.
The areas around San Tan Valley and Maricopa are already aligned with the Maricopa County through federally-funded transportation programs administered by the Maricopa Association of Governments while the rest of Pinal County has these programs administered through CAAG.
WIA programs in Maricopa County are administered by the Maricopa Workforce Connection, a unit of the Maricopa County Human Services Agency. Representatives of Pinal County government have already visited Connection offices to discuss a partnership but no formal agreements have been reached as yet, said Patricia Wallace, Connection assistant director.
The Gila County Board of Supervisors is resigned to the WIA partnership breaking up next year.
“We’d like to continue to work with Pinal County on employment programs but we are not positive the partnership will run past July 2015,” said Melissa Buzan, director of Gila County Community Services.
“Since 2000, the partnership has resulted in much progress being made in attracting jobs and training local residents to perform them. Hopefully Gila County can carry on serving the employment and training needs for our rural citizens,” Buzan said.
By decoupling with Gila County and perhaps couple with Maricopa County, Pinal County can do a better job of attracting the type of jobs the county’s growing population need, Kanavel said.
“In 2000 Pinal and Gila had equal populations, but now Pinal has over 400,000 residents while Gila County has only 52,000 residents and shrinking,” he noted. At 88,000 San Tan Valley itself has more residents than all of Gila County, while Casa Grande with about 50,000 residents is almost equal with Gila.
“Most of jobs being created in Gila are in tourism and mining, but Pinal is pursuing job-creating companies involved in high-tech, manufacturing and distribution. We have radically different workforce needs,” Kanavel added.
As an example of the businesses being attracted to Pinal County, he cited the distribution warehouse of The Tractor Supply Co. near Coolidge. The company has nearly a page of job openings at that warehouse ranging from dock workers to inventory managers on its website.
The county also is making a bid to attract the Tesla Motors lithium battery factory to a site in the center of the county, he said. To further boost employment opportunities, Pinal is looking into creating a free trade zone to attract foreign businesses.
“That is something we wouldn’t have attempted a few years ago, but it feels good to be able to compete with larger counties around the country for these jobs,” Kanavel said.
Kanavel sees the switch in emphasis on the WIA program to benefit all sectors of the county, including those in the southeastern corner of the county hit hard by the closing of local mines.
Communities like Oracle and San Manuel still have populations that include residents who are of working age but have to drive toward Tucson to find gainful employment. By attracting new employers into Pinal County and having the ability to train them to meet the needs of these employers, these residents can work closer to home and have shorter commutes. And the availability of those new jobs also will attract new residents to these communities, reversing population declines and boosting their local economies, creating still more jobs, he noted.
“Sounds like something we can really use around here,” said Linda Lee, an employee at the San Manuel Library on hearing of the county’s plans.
During its years of operations, the Pinal/Gila partnership on WIA programs has faithfully fulfilled its mission, said Smith. Many displaced workers and new arrivals have found employment through the One-Stop Centers in each county (Casa Grande in Pinal and Globe in Gila). Thousands of workers also have been retrained for new jobs in both counties through a partnership with Central Arizona College.
The dissolution on the WIA partnership under CAAG would not be the first program loss for that governmental body. In 2010 the Sun Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization was carved out of a section of Pinal County around Casa Grande, Coolidge and Eloy and took over local transportation planning services. Since them the organization of drafted plans for highway improvements through the area, including I-8 and I-10 and the future I-11. The organization also is working on improvements in railroad logistics to better serve the growth in industry planned by Pinal County in that region.
But CAAG has many accomplishments in other areas. These include creation of a revolving loan fund to help businesses relocate into Pinal and Gila. In a partnership with Digital Arizona, rural Internet broadband has been improved to provide faster speeds with greater reliability. CAAG also oversaw planning and improvements of the wastewater management systems in Gold Canyon and Marana. The latter is a joint project with Pima County, near whose border Marana sits.
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