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Consultant Blasts Pinal County Economic Development Program

By Eric Jay Toll for Arizona Builder’s Exchange

Photo Credit: Pinal County

If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got. That appears to be the underlying philosophy behind State Lands’ economic projections for the Red Rock Rail Classification Center near Picacho. The adverse report, combined with State Land Commissioner Maria Baier’s exit from the agency, pulls the air brakes on Union Pacific’s (UPRR) hoped-for acquisition of 950 acres of trust lands for its $250M project.

Anchoring a Multimodal Logistic Center

“(UPRR) is interested in acquiring the land. We have a need for this project,” says Arizona-New Mexico Union Pacific Public Affairs director, Zoe Richmond. “Because of the economy, we don’t know when we will break ground for it, but we’re ready to buy the land.” In July, the rail road had expected a December resolution.

Pinal County officials view the rail yard as a part of a developing “Golden Corridor.” Located in the center of the Sun Corridor, officials see enhancement of Pinal Airpark, the confluence of interstates 8, 10 and the now-being-studied I-11 (AZBEX, October 19), and the UPRR facility as a long-term $25B economic engine. A new state effort to increase export activity with northern Mexico and the CANAMEX transportation concept fuel the optimism.

Predetermined Outcome for Study?

A California consultant, Gruen Gruen + Associates, sees blue skies and little substance in the hoped for economic gains from the rail yard. The rail road and county are at extreme odds with the September economic report prepared for the State Land Department. The economic development and planning consultancy did not include the inland port concept nor I-11 construction impacts in their study. Instead they footnoted that “certainty of (the) projects would not be determined during the … disposition of the Classification Yard parcel.”

In a November 21st letter to the State Lands Commission, Pinal County Supervisors challenged the report’s validity. “Union Pacific would not have chosen this site,” the Board said, if the county were not able to deliver an adequate labor force. Off the record, board members took great umbrage with the negative comments about the county in the report. “It appears that the conclusion was written before the report was researched,” one county official says.

Pinal Supervisors Blast Report Conclusions

County officials noted that Gruen Gruen + Associates compared the facility to the world’s largest rail yard, North Platt, Neb., and another encircled by residences in Roseville, Calif. These are bad comparisons, sources close to the project told AZBEX. The study limits its economic analysis to rail yards built between the late 1800s and the mid-20th century, including one smaller specialty rail facility designed for chemical transport built in 1995. The study ignored the 21st century model for Pinal County’s economic plans – Alliance Global Logistics Center, Alliance, Tex. – which consolidates rail, truck and air cargo into a single proximity.

The consultant’s disparaging remarks about Pinal County’s economic development projections seem to be based on current market conditions without consideration for what’s planned in the future. Gruen concludes that with the more than 20K acres of industrial zoning already “on the books” in Casa Grande and Eloy, the rail classification project will not generate “spin-off industrial development.”

The report attacks Pinal County’s current economic base and labor pool as not having “evolved to…help businesses attract and retain labor and operate most cost effectively and productively.”

Study Fails at Looking Forward

The report fails to address the critical mass of ongoing multimodal transportation plans, says Pinal County. Gruen Gruen + Associates, according to the board, ignores multimodal logistics when projecting future demand for industrial land. “The lack of transportation and rail access to move raw materials to productions sides and move finished goods to market is an impediment to industrial development,” says the letter. Other independent economic development experts have previously said that the rail yard would serve as an impetus for development to move into the area.