Russ Wiles Arizona Republic
(CNT) City News Talk #arizona
The East Valley’s three biggest cities shined in a new prosperity measure — and not just in Arizona, but nationally.
Of the nation’s 100 most populous cities, Gilbert nabbed the top spot overall for prosperity in the new study, as it did in a similar report two years ago by Economic Innovation Group. Chandler finished second best nationally, and Scottsdale placed fifth.
Mesa also received a good grade, while Phoenix and Glendale were slightly below average and Tucson finished near the bottom.
The most recent study, released in October by Economic Innovation Group, scored cities on seven measures covering these categories: poverty, education, housing vacancy, work, incomes, job growth and business openings. It largely drew on data through 2018, meaning that the report doesn’t reflect the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout from trying to slow spread of the virus.
Still, the latest study and previous editions have found that a boom in Western states in recent decades has resulted in the growth of large, prosperous suburbs characterized by relatively high and uniform levels of well-being among their residents. Parts of Arizona have benefited from this trend.
Arizona’s prosperous cities”don’t have the range of high- and low-income neighborhoods that many cities of similar sizes contain in other regions of the country,”said Kenan Fikri, research director at Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan public-policy organization, in an email.
“In that sense, their rankings arepowered by their homogeneity as well as their economic strength.”
How cities in AZ, U.S. ranked
The cities in the survey were ranked in tiers from “prosperous” to “distressed,” with a few categories between those.
“Distressed” cities around the nation had wide economic gaps.
Cleveland was deemed the most distressed large city, followed by Newark, New Jersey; Buffalo, New York; Memphis, Tennessee; and Detroit. St. Louis, Milwaukee and Baltimore rounded out the bottom 10, along with Toledo, Ohio, and Cincinnati.
Tucson was by far the weakest of the seven Arizona cities analyzed, ranking 90th of the 100 largest cities nationally.
Specifically, Gilbert, Chandler and Scottsdale all were classified by EIG as “prosperous” cities, ranking first, second and fifth, respectively. Mesa came in 25th, in the “comfortable” category, while 56th-place Phoenix and Glendale, ranked 70th, were deemed to be “at risk.” Tucson was classified as “distressed.”
Despite its lackluster overall showing, Phoenix ranked as third best for prosperity when compared among the nation’s 10 most populous cities. San Jose, California, was the most prosperous of these big 10, while Houston and Philadelphia were most distressed.
Chris Camacho, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, said cities across the metro area, including Phoenix and Glendale, have benefitted from factors include affordable housing, competitive wages and reasonable commercial-building lease rates compared to many other larger cities. He also cited the region’s emergence as a technology hub.
“Ten, 15 years ago, the Valley wasn’t considered a tech juggernaut,” Camacho said. “Now, we’re on the radar of everyone looking for a West Coast operation” in areas including software and cybersecurity.
Hallmarks of prosperous cities
Gilbert, Chandler, and Scottsdale all have relatively well-educated populations, with at least 44% of residents ages 25 and up having a college degree, Fikri said.
Poverty rates in all three East Valley cities are low, while median incomes are high relative to other large Arizona and U.S. municipalities.
The 2020 results were similar to findings in a 2018 study by EIG. Gilbert also finished best overall in that report, with Chandler and Scottsdale placing among the top five for prosperity. Mesa was in 29th place, with Glendale and Phoenix coming in 67th and 69th, respectively. Tucson finished in 92nd place.
The 2018 study drew on data through 2016 and focused on assessing how well cities were faring in the aftermath of the Great Recession. One finding was that college-educated Americans, and the neighborhoods where they congregate, have flourished much more than people with less education.
Still pockets of need
As noted, the latest study was constructed mainly using data through 2018, which means it doesn’t reflect the COVID-19 pandemic and economic-closing measures to slow the virus. Many East Valley families have suffered as a result, though that’s also true of millions of people in other cities and states.
At United Food Bank’s distribution facility in Mesa, the number of families seeking free food assistance in recent months has risen to three or four times what it was in February and March, right before the pandemic hit, though it has eased a bit in recent weeks.
“We’re seeing more gig workers, hotel workers and Uber drivers,” said Dave Richins, president and CEO of the food bank. Rising unemployment drove up demand for food assistance for people in these groups. Disabled individuals and lower-income retired seniors also are among those in need, he said.
But as food demand has risen, so has help from affluent East Valley residents. “Folks in Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler and Scottsdale are very generous in supporting the food bank,” Richins said. “I have all the resources I need to meet that demand.”