ROX Interview: James Smith

Economic Development Director, Pinal County

Interview by Bea Lueck

GC LIVING: So here with James Smith, the new Pinal County economic development director. Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born and raised?

James Smith: Born and raised in San Jose, California. I went to San Jose State University for both my bachelor’s in economics and a master’s in public administration.

GC LIVING: Were you in economic development in California before you moved to Arizona?

James Smith: I actually worked in business development at the San Jose International Airport before I came to Arizona.

In 2006, we just made the decision to move somewhere a little more affordable. We had our second daughter at that point and the Phoenix area was always an area that was of interest to me. I had come here several times over the years. My dad brought me to spring training when I was in high school. And so this was always an area that I was interested in living in. So, when we were looking for something a little more affordable, this kind of was top of mind, and we decided to move down here.

We moved to Arizona and specifically to San Tan Valley. We lived there for almost eight years and I worked with the City of Chandler the whole time, and I had an opportunity to move closer to work. We’ve lived in Chandler ever since, but I was a resident of Pinal County for almost eight years.

GC LIVING: And what was your role at the City of Chandler?

James Smith: I started out as an economic to development specialist and finished there as economic development, innovation program manager. And so that really was kind of a broad position. I was still doing economic development work but was also involved in some of the smart cities initiatives that the city was involved in. I was also very involved with autonomous vehicle implementation, Waymo and some of that technology and making the city attractive to that industry, particularly the testing of autonomous vehicles.

GC LIVING: And then you left the City of Chandler to go to Fountain Hills?

James Smith: Correct. Yes, as the economic development director there. I was there for about two and a half years.

GC LIVING: So what do you see for Pinal County past, present, future?

James Smith: I see so much opportunity for so many different reasons. A lot of people have moved from the Phoenix area out this way. So there’s a ready workforce, especially in the northern part of the county. And I think employers will want to tap into that workforce. I think those people definitely want to stay close to home for the quality of life, to have good jobs that are close to home. There’s so much transportation infrastructure and open land throughout the county that I think it makes for a very competitive landscape for warehousing and distribution and manufacturing. And so, I just really liked what I saw in terms of the combination of the opportunities and the team that’s already here.

GC LIVING: Now you just touched on three of the modalities typically considered more of a blue-collar sector. The manufacturing and logistics, Pinal County is positioning themselves to be a tech corridor. What has been done so far? And what do you see needs to be done in the future to fully implement?

James Smith: When you talk about manufacturing in today’s world, a lot is very high-tech and requires high levels of education to operate the machinery and to design it and keep it running, and all those kinds of things. So much of manufacturing now is automated. The two, I would say, are not mutually exclusive in terms of them being blue-collar jobs. In many cases, these are high-tech jobs that are involved in these manufacturing processes. Those tend to be very high-paying jobs as well. And I think that there are certainly opportunities in Pinal County and throughout Arizona for those types of jobs. And so, there are several things we need to do. First, ensure that we have a quality workforce. Second, we need to ensure that we have a good infrastructure that can support those facilities. I think the county has already taken steps to do that, but certainly, something that’s important going forward.

GC LIVING: What are some of the typical methods that economic development departments use in their day-to-day tool belt to attract business to a region?

James Smith: I think in many ways economic development is a relationship business. You’ve got to build relationships with people, with real estate brokers, site selectors.

You’ve got to constantly let them know what opportunities you have so when opportunities arise you are top of mind for the professionals charged with finding sites for companies. I think, first and foremost, you’ve got to build relationships and stay top of mind. And again, the other things like I talked about, we’ve got to constantly make sure that we have the workforce that we need, and work with our workforce partners to ensure that the people are trained, that they’re available and that we can sell the workforce to companies that are interested in coming here.

Also, again, making sure that there’s good infrastructure that supports these companies. But the other thing is, making sure that the investment community is willing to take risks, which means building speculative buildings and having them available when opportunities arise. Oftentimes, when companies are looking at an area, they need a building quickly and they’ll eliminate places that can’t deliver a building that’s ready for them, that they can be up and running within a reasonable amount of time. So that’s another thing that we constantly need to make sure that people are comfortable and feel confident investing in the communities and in the county so that they’re willing to take a chance and build buildings so that companies can have something ready should they want to locate quickly.

GC LIVING: Now you said infrastructure. To the layman that may mean something different than what the site selectors and major corporations are seeking. What would you define infrastructure to be?

James Smith: It can mean many things. In some cases for a warehouse distribution user, it could mean making sure there are good connections to highways, good access. That could mean access to rail and intermodal connections. But generally, we’re talking about power, and certain users need more power than others. Some just need kind of your basic amount of power. Some need natural gas connections. Some need high levels of water or wastewater service. It can be different for all of them. But when we talk about infrastructure, we’re talking about all those things. And it really is different for every user, but generally, those are the things we’re talking about.

GC LIVING: How do you think Pinal County ranks in the state for the availability of some of the things you just listed?

James Smith: Well, I certainly think that there are some areas that are a little more built out in terms of infrastructure than others, but I also see that the communities and the county have proven that we can be competitive in delivering on the needs, particularly to the locates that have recently announced. I’m confident that the communities and the county can deliver what’s needed for the future.

GC LIVING: Now, in the past, there have been some allowances made for industries for location, whether it’s impact fees or such. Is that something that municipalities and the county still use to attract industry? Or is that something that isn’t needed anymore?

James Smith: I don’t know yet what each of the communities will do. Certainly, it’s always something that is asked about by site selectors and by the companies; that they’ll ask what is available. So I think it’s still something that’s to be considered. But I can’t speak to what some of the individual communities might do or might not do.

GC LIVING: It’s important, the collaborative efforts between the county, the municipalities and the private sector, correct?

James Smith: Absolutely. Companies want to make sure that they’re going to have a reliable experience. If you say you’re going to be able to deliver something and they want to open on X date, They need to be sure that they can trust you and that you’re going to deliver on what you say.

GC LIVING: How is Pinal County positioning itself to be at the forefront over the larger counties to the north and south of us?

James Smith: I just would say that there’s a strong, educated population in the area. There are some natural advantages with transportation routes and such. There are quite a few assets that can be marketed. But for me to speak definitively on how we’re going to do that, I’m just not prepared today.

GC LIVING: In the trifecta of economic development, does the Casa Grande-Eloy area have an advantage because of two interstates and rail connectivity?

James Smith: Oh, I certainly think it’s very attractive to a variety of users because of its strategic transportation advantages.

GC LIVING: With our current state of drought and remaining water limitations, we’re not going to be able to attract the industry that is a high water user. Do we put efforts to something like attracting them knowing it’s a pipe dream? Or again, do we just answer the questions and the end-user decides if it’s the right fit for them or not?

James Smith: I think each community needs to make their own decisions on that. I’ll give you an example from Chandler. There were certain industries that we didn’t feel fit the City of Chandler. They either didn’t create enough jobs. They didn’t pay high enough wages. They weren’t going to provide the economic impact. We weren’t willing to commit water to those types of uses.

James Smith: I think each community has to determine whether they can support that use from a water standpoint and whether it fits the profile of what their community is looking for in terms of economic development. And ultimately, I think there needs to be some confidence that it can be delivered and that the user needs to be confident that we will have the water going forward.

GC LIVING: What is the role of the Pinal County Economic Development Department as a whole in line with the municipalities? How would you see it going forward?

James Smith: So, I really see us leading some of the efforts in the unincorporated areas, but also being a resource for other communities, bringing the workforce efforts to them to assist with anything they’re working on. And then just generally being a resource, possibly by facilitating things that the county can do to help bring their projects to fruition. I also see us trying to recruit businesses to the county as a whole and being open to them going wherever best fits their needs.

Stephanie Maack, who has been with Pinal County for 7 years, joined James for some specific questions on the current state of economic development efforts.

GC LIVING: Is Pinal County still facing the shortage of jobs and a lot of residents commuting to the valley for employment? That is changing, but we still have a high number of daily commuters, especially in the San Tan Valley area.

Stephanie Maack: We do have portions of our workforce that drive out of Pinal County. Just this past week, we had the opportunity to tour Drive 48, which is a training facility for Lucid, located in Coolidge. I think as jobs like these become more available, people are going to say, “Hey, it’s great to work at Lucid or Nikola and Hexcel.” They are going to be able to work in their own backyard.

As these businesses come, the workforce is going to say, “I don’t have to go to Phoenix for my job. And these positions are doing something amazing. They’re building an electric vehicle, a hydrogen battery, or a hydrogen electrical truck. In my opinion, I think the workforce leaving Pinal County will decrease. It’s good to see that these businesses are advocating more for themselves for that workforce.

GC LIVING: What do you see economic development doing 10 years down the road, 20 years down the road? It’s not just a county focus, as an industry, what is the focus and goals going down the road?

James Smith: Yeah, I think one of them certainly is that those people in Pinal County that want to work can have a job close to home and a good-paying job that fits their skills and is just a good fit. I think certainly the autonomous and electric vehicles industries are where we would hope to see continued growth. I think that’s where our country’s going. And I think we would hope to see more growth and expansion in those areas, having more of the supply chain here, and just really having all of that industry clustered here, I think that would certainly be a good goal. I think those are a couple of things.

GC LIVING: Do you foresee industry bringing more jobs back to the United States? The pandemic and supply chain breakages that we are experiencing are bringing to light how dependent the United States as a whole is on other countries. Do you, as someone who deals in economic development, see this as the impetus to bring more base-level company manufacturing back to the states?

James Smith: Yeah, absolutely. I think you’re already seeing those trends happening, and I think this is where Pinal County is really strategically well-positioned, being between Texas and California, to kind of serve as that base for manufacturing companies to be able to access some of the largest economies in the world and to manufacture it here and have excellent transportation infrastructure to get their products to where they need to go.

GC LIVING: What would you like to talk about and share with the readers?

James Smith: I just think that there are so many things that really make Pinal County ripe for opportunity. You see some of the things that have happened in California and companies looking to leave. I think that certainly makes Pinal County attractive. You can still get back into California. You can still reach Texas. It’s a very strategic location.

James Smith: I just think there’s a lot of exciting things. And I’m excited about Nikola and Lucid and what they’ve done and how they’re at the forefront of I think what’s what we will see with our country really heading toward electric vehicles, hydrogen technology and the potential for autonomous vehicles going forward. It just, I think puts Pinal County in a really good position moving forward to see a continued growth in those areas.

GC LIVING: Do you see a place for the mining industry in Pinal County’s economy of the future?

Stephanie Maack: Yes. Pinal County is known for its copper. We have Resolution Copper, Florence Cooper, Asarco, and the Arizona Copper Company project in Casa Grande who call our county home. These companies are more advanced and efficient than they were years ago. Here are a couple of great examples, Arizona Copper Company is processing the tailings from the previous mine owner for available copper. That’s incredible! Resolution Copper will be mining using robots! These are great stories and plus, they tie right into the Arizona Innovation and Technology Corridor that runs right through Pinal County.

GC LIVING: Now, tourism has definitely emerged as one of the financial growth sectors in the county. How do you foresee tourism overall as a growth sector?

James Smith: One of the things I hope we will see as we get through the pandemic is a return of international travelers. I know that many of them truly like an authentic Arizona experience. They like to be in the raw desert. They like to camp and really kind of experience a true desert experience. So I’m hoping that as we get through the pandemic here, and our borders are opened up again, that we’ll see some more international travelers, especially. But I think just in general, hopefully getting through the pandemic, we will start to see people out and traveling again. And hopefully that we can make the case for Pinal County and for experiencing some of the things that we have here.

GC LIVING: Steph, you want to add anything?

Stephanie Maack: We are seeing that people want to get out, so we are seeing more recreation. We’re trying to capture more of that back. We launched our first visitors guide in the county this last fiscal year and we’ve had amazing responses with it. The supervisors added tourism as a 6th targeted sector. Tourism brings tax dollars into our county which also saves our residents on their taxes as well. Unfortunately, we took a little bit of dip in 2020, about a 31% dip, but our direct spending was a little over $533 million, with a tax revenue of over $49 million. So even during a pandemic, that’s not too bad. Pinal County has seen a rise in tourism ever since 2016. So to take a dip in 2020, we know what caused that. So obviously, Pinal County has the assets. It’s just, I think, how we market those.

GC LIVING: What do you see for your future and Pinal County’s economic development?

James Smith: I think I kind of alluded to this. I really see the opportunity for some of these emerging technologies. And I really hope that we can continue to grow those technologies, that we continue to get investment and grow jobs and prosperity here for the county. And I think that Nikola and Lucid really are a kind of a jump-start to technology and to some of these future trends and technologies that we think are great to build upon going forward.

Stephanie Maack: We’re really happy to have James on board. He’s a very smart gentleman and he’s got great successes, so it’s wonderful to see that we have that resource. And I’ve already said I feel like my chair has magnetic pull to always be in his office to talk to him about, “This is what’s going on and we need to do what about this? And what about this?” And he’s been very, very open. I am very happy James is part of the Pinal County team.