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Peoria development chief hopes to diversify economic base.

Peoria development chief hopes to diversify economic base

By: Sonu Munshi - Aug. 18, 2010 10:01 AM
The Arizona Republic

Planning is pretty much all that's on Scott Whyte's mind these days. The tight economy leaves little room for much else.

But the Peoria economic development director is strategizing big now to ensure that when the economy rebounds, the city is ready to grab its share of growth. Think of a university with a residential campus, a business incubator and a good share of the biotech industry and other health-care enterprises, along with some manufacturing. For now, only 6.6 percent of Peoria residents work in the city.

The city's top five private employers illustrate its retail-centric base, with four out of five in the retail industry. Auto Row on Bell Road, just west of Loop 101, employs nearly 1,600 people, making it collectively the city's top private employer.

When removing the retail sector, it's health care that dominates the city's employment base. A cluster of health-care facilities including Freedom Plaza Care Center and Plaza Del Rio Care Center at Plaza Del Rio health-care campus, employ 650.

Officials aim to diversify Peoria's economy from the suburban model of rooftops and retail. They're finalizing an economic development study to figure out where Peoria stands and how best to plan for the future. Planned initiatives should be presented to the City Council next month. Barry Broome, chief executive of Greater Phoenix Economic Council, said that with the down economy, which he doesn't see turning around for another three to four years, now is the time for Peoria to get its plan together.

He said focusing on next-generation health care and leveraging existing Metro Phoenix assets such as TGen is a good move on Peoria's part.

"I think they're headed in the right direction," Broome said.

Recession and challenges

Whyte hopes the future is more positive than the year past, which development-wise was "balanced" but "tough."

New business openings balanced many that closed, he said. But no major high-tech or high-wage employer - the kind city leaders would like to attract instead of retail alone - opened in the city.

The city's unemployment rate, according to preliminary June data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, stood at 11.3 percent.

Tight financial markets, a sputtering economy, diminished land values and high office vacancies all make it tough to say the economy is post-recession, Whyte said.

Case in point: The city's first hospital, Peoria Regional Medical Center, planned south of Loop 303 along Lake Pleasant Parkway was originally set for a groundbreaking in November. A lack of financing continues to hold back the project, he said.

Vacancies among industrial and retail spaces remain high, although it's slowly improving. Existing office vacancies decreased by 1.2 percent in 2009, but the overall vacancy rate remains at 21.8 percent.

Among issues that city leaders often hear from prospective employers and developers, is the lack of available large commercial buildings, no direct train service or proximity to Sky Harbor International Airport, Whyte said.

"Some people want to be close to Arizona State University SkySong or want a bigger building than we have available," Whyte said. "At the end of the day, if someone wants a Porsche and all you have is a Volkswagen, you have to stick to your strengths and market those strategically."

Attracting bright future

To attract high-paying jobs, city officials frequently bring up ideas like strategic land assembly and incentives such as a foreign trade zones to nab manufacturers.

Within the past year, Peoria has talked with several universities about opening a campus in the city to expand its knowledge workers. The city was expected this week to enter exclusive negotiations with Ottawa University.

The city is working toward a partnership with Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and Thunderbird School of Global Management to house a bioscience campus. And Peoria leaders are talking with The Center for Orthopedic Research and Education of Phoenix to set up an incubator to develop educated entrepreneurial activity in the city.

Whyte said the city this year hopes to continue to let major investors and players know the city is out there.

"It's going to take time to get people to view the city as an investment destination," Whyte said.

But the development chief knows patience is key, especially in this economy.

"You don't go from 0 to 100 mph just like that," Whyte said.

Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/community/peoria/articles/2010/08/18/20100818peoria-economic-base.html#ixzz0xAD1kG4S

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