Q&A: Roc Arnett - Future of the Phoenix East Valley

03/24/2015 04:15 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

Do Arizona municipalities have what it takes to make the state one of the top places to do business in? Roc Arnett, president of East Valley Partnership, thinks so. Under Arnett’s leadership, the nonpartisan group is leading a new initiative called PHX East Valley, to systematically publicize the outstanding business and quality of life assets in the East Valley region of Greater Phoenix. As a resident of the Phoenix East Valley myself, I was amazed to learn the numbers behind the booming economic growth in my hometown.The initiative released a comprehensive economic profile earlier this year, including stats and facts on everything from climate, to population demographics, to real estate averages, to education trends.

Arnett explained some of the STEM education projects and business assets that make the “PHX East Valley” a dynamic region for business to me earlier this month in a Q and A.

Is Arizona education adequately preparing students for STEM related careers and what programs are making it more capable?

Arizona has work to do before it can rank among the top states for education. However, pockets in the East Valley region of Greater Phoenix are making strides on improving K-12 test scores and higher education. Half of the A+ K-12 systems in the state are found in the East Valley. Gilbert is leading this trend with STEM programs which include robotics. Arizona State University’s TechShop is a do-it-yourself work in Chandler offering students personal training, consulting and prototyping. 3D printing technology, laser cutting, machining, welding and machine milling are among courses being offered. Arizona State University was the first university in the country to partner with TechShop, giving the public and students a chance to use the equipment and classes to drive innovation and create something in a supportive community. In 2014, BASIS Scottsdale was named the nation's #1 charter school and the #15 STEM school by U.S. News & World Report. With growth from local tech companies like Intel and financial institutions like State Farm, Arizona will need to fill 166,000 STEM-related jobs by 2018. These programs in the East Valley are helping us get there.

Job growth in construction and manufacturing, which have long been the primary source of the Arizona economy, continues to dwindle. How can we reinvent the skills of the low income workforce to adapt to a new economy where idea creation, innovation, and advancement are so paramount?

In the past, it was easy for the young workforce to find a job in construction and manufacturing with little to no education or training. As we know, the Arizona economy has shifted and this workforce is adapting to the “new normal”. The East Valley Institute of Technology and Maricopa Community Colleges offer hands-on advanced skills and training needed in today's competitive job market. Careers include health care, 3D animation, aviation, and much more. Graduates from specialized two-year program in areas such as energy can make $60-70,000 right out of school.

What factors make Arizona a more desirable place for private businesses?

The Arizona Competitiveness Package is groundbreaking legislation adopted in 2011 that has made Arizona more inviting for businesses to relocate and expand. It is equally important for Arizona to retain and grow business as it is to attract it. Programs include job training, qualified facility credits, R&D tax credits, foreign trade zones, military reuse zones, energy conservation bonds, renewable energy production tax credits and Angel investment tax credits.

Local municipalities are helping make property “shovel ready” with economic development reserve funds, certified sites, 60-day permitting, over the counter (OTC) plan review, express permitting (1-3 Working Days), and at-risk plan reviews.

What infrastructure is attractive to business?

Besides incentive programs, the area has ideal market access. In 2004, Maricopa County voters renewed a 0.5 percent sales-tax to ­improve transportation systems which has equated to billions in funds for freeways and road development. Decades of highway, utility and airport infrastructure planning have made PHX East Valley a highly-valued connectivity point for commerce. Well planned highways not only connect PHX East Valley to ports in California and Mexico but also reduce work commutes for the high-tech workforce. PHX East Valley’s four airports offer a diverse portfolio of aerospace, defense, aviation and other high-tech industries, plus the operations to support those such as maintenance and repair operations, cargo and R&D activities. Recently, the Arizona Supreme Court approved a 1.9-mile light-rail extension from Mesa to Gilbert which is an effective example of leveraging federal partnerships and local government funds.

Has the reputation Arizona has received from bills like SB1070 and SB1062 significantly hindered population and subsequent job growth?

Leadership and policies come and go. What’s most important is that local government and business continue to work together for economic development. The economic growth and superior quality of life found in the PHX East Valley didn’t happen overnight. Public and private sectors have collaborated to create new sources of growth in well-performing industries that include high-tech, finance, manufacturing, and healthcare. This economic transformation has proven it can also reignite the real estate industry.

According to a 2014 fourth quarter Cushman & Wakefield Office Report, the PHX East Valley represented the majority of significant lease and sales transactions in the Metro Phoenix area. North Tempe has the lowest overall vacancy rate of 10.8 percent, followed by the Chandler and Gilbert submarkets at 16.2 percent. Demand also increased from large users expanding or relocating to the market. As a result, average asking rental rates accelerated, reaching $21.05 per square foot, up 2.2 percent from 2013.