Education and workforce development topped a list of Arizona Town Hall participants’ priorities to support a strong Arizona economy.
About 100 Arizona business, government agency, tribal, urban, rural, nonprofit and student leaders developed those recommendations for state and local leaders during the 105th Arizona Town Hall held Nov. 2 through 5 at the El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
“The Town Hall participants considered education to be so essential to economic development that they recommended making education funding a top priority, including the possibility of a comprehensive review of our tax system,” said Scott Rhodes, 105th Arizona Town Hall board chair and managing attorney of Jennings, Strouss & Salmon, PLC in Phoenix.
Arizona Town Hall participants read a background report prepared by Arizona State University and used it to shape discussions on Arizona’s economy, making the most of the state’s geography, infrastructure and natural resources, developing the jobs as well as setting priorities and taking action.
Focusing on infrastructure, tourism, entrepreneurship with an emphasis on local business and expansion of trade, and establishing Arizona as welcoming and culturally diverse rounded out the top five priorities developed by Town Hall participants, said Tammy McLeod, an Arizona Town Hall participant and vice president of energy resource management at Arizona Public Service in Phoenix.
“With each of these priorities there are a set of actions that when taken will have a direct impact on the development of a robust and diverse economy,” McLeod said.
Arizona Town Hall participants created a draft report they adopted during their session, and a final report is now on the Arizona Town Hall website.
“The Town Hall participants once again showed that it is possible to develop policy through consensus,” Rhodes said. “As with every Town Hall, the participants came together, worked hard, focused on what they had in common instead of their differences, and they produced a comprehensive report that has many specific recommendations for action.”
Education and workforce development
Arizona Town Hall participants “believe education is vital to economic development for two reasons,” Rhodes said.
“First, workforce development,” Rhodes said. “Second, appealing to the desire of businesses and entrepreneurs to locate their businesses in a state where their employees feel confident that their children will receive the highest possible quality of education.”
Many companies looking to expand or relocate need a skilled workforce now and into the future, and they want to see Arizona continue to improve education, particularly – but not exclusively – in science, technology and math, according to the background report.
Because innovation drives business, education, and research and development factor into an area’s economic competitiveness, according to the background report.
“From the perspective of business retention and expansion and business attraction, our Arizona workforce was deemed a priority,” McLeod said. “That workforce is dependent on a strong educational performance which is the fundamental building block from which all economic development strategies emerge.”
While workforce development is a key component of education, it’s not isolated, McLeod said, noting that well-educated people have greater civic involvement and contribute to making the state a better place to live.
“By making Arizona a great, inclusive place we not only attract new businesses but we also retain the best and brightest students because they want to be here,” McLeod said.
Before attending Arizona Town Hall, participants also read economic reports about two rural Arizona counties.
The 27th annual Pinal County Town Hall’s summary report included recommendations to enhance local and county health measures to improve residents’ health, access to health care, develop and support health programs and develop strategies to make those things happen.
The Southwest Arizona Futures Forum’s report on Yuma’s regional economy cited the area’s strengths, how to support a vibrant, sustainable regional economy, what elected leaders can do to help, and the roles of the public and private sector in promoting economic development.
“Ensuring business/growth in rural areas helps the entire state to be a strong, economic force as a whole,” said Linda Elliott-Nelson, an Arizona Town Hall participant and dean of instruction at Arizona Western College in Yuma.
Yuma’s primary industry is agriculture, which has evolved over the years and includes being the lettuce capital of the U.S. in the winter months, Elliott-Nelson said.
Yuma also has a strong government presence with the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station and the Yuma Proving Ground, and its population grows each winter as people from colder climates come to Yuma for the warmer weather, Elliott-Nelson said.
“However, our area has a high unemployment rate and we are working to increase the number of college degrees with our residents, which will help attract industry, which looks for an educated workforce,” Elliott-Nelson said.
Arizona’s rural communities are different from the state’s urban areas, and add to its richness and diversity, Elliott-Nelson.
“Many rural areas contain a variety of resources that are not present in other areas of the state,” Elliott-Nelson said. “A growing economy in the rural areas makes all of our state strong and balances resources throughout the state.”
Elliott-Nelson said when she spoke with many Arizona Town Hall participants from rural areas “it was very evident that increasing access to broadband internet in all communities, especially rural and tribal, is important to economic development and supporting educational opportunities.”
Future leaders’ priorities
Hundreds of students and other youth leaders also made recommendations for Arizona’s elected leaders at eight Future Leader Town Halls throughout Arizona in Cottonwood, Flagstaff, Peoria, Prescott, San Luis, Sierra Vista, Tucson and Yuma.
These future leaders recommended that Arizona’s elected leaders focus on long-term education, invest in infrastructure to attract business and enhance mobility, pay attention to the needs and aspirations of the middle class, work together with leaders at the community state and tribal levels for the betterment of all, and create a receptive business climate with competitive pay.
“One of my recommendations in regards to implementing programs to retain ‘home-grown talent’ was taken surprisingly great,” said Celeste Nunez, an Arizona Town Hall participant and student at Pima Community College in Tucson. “I’m happy to see that our leaders are seeing the future not just for them, but for us the younger generation.”
Nunez talked about Arizona Town Hall at her school’s honors council meeting and spoke to other students about the experience which she called life-changing and enlightening.
“The way everyone is prioritizing education makes me feel hopeful,” Nunez said. “I knew we were having problems with the education system, but never knew if there was something being done or not. Knowing that the rest of Arizona citizens share the same concern makes me feel that it will be prioritized soon.”
Highlighting Arizona’s attributes
Several of Arizona Town Hall recommendations include re-branding Arizona’s image, “which the participants believe is unfairly negative,” Rhodes said.
“They made recommendations designed to have the many positive attributes of our state showcased on a global level,” McLeod said. “They want to portray the state as open, diverse, beautiful and welcoming.”
“When our state’s residents get together and discuss tough issues within a civil discourse framework, real solutions emerge,” McLeod said. “The Arizona Town Hall demonstrates the respect and inclusion that we’re seeking as our state brand.”