Phoenix versus Las Vegas – who’s ahead?

The Phoenix skyline

I grew up two blocks from the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis. I could walk to the Clydesdale stables any time I wanted. My neighborhood was called Soulard, and it drifts in and out of being considered fashionable. During my years there, it definitely was not fashionable. But it was home, and it was most decidedly urban, and I am decidedly a city kid.

When we moved to Phoenix eight years ago, my wife and I traded in suburban life in St. Louis to become city dwellers once again. I’ll always have a strong allegiance to St. Louis, but I’ve been impressed by Phoenix. It’s clean and modern. It’s one of the few cities represented with teams in all major league sports (although that could be changing, depending on the ultimate fate of the Phoenix Coyotes). It has beautiful stadiums and arenas, great museums, and a strong arts and entertainment community.

It has its shortcomings as well. There are few Fortune 500 headquarters here. The state economy was built on “the five C’s” – copper, citrus, cattle, cotton and climate (shorthand for tourism) – but it’s not entirely clear what the economic foundations for the 21st century will be. And of course, the city is seen through the reputation of the state, which may be good or bad depending upon your point of view.

One thing I never would have guessed is that Phoenix is envied by some community leaders in, of all places, Las Vegas. It’s not unusual for Phoenicians to head up to Vegas for rest and relaxation. Phoenicians are as dazzled by the glitz and glamor of Vegas as people are throughout the country. But apparently, some people in Las Vegas seem to think Phoenix has a better grasp on its future, if Michael Squires’s recent post at VegasInc is to be believed.

Squires has a lot of complimentary things to say about Phoenix:

  • Our business cohesiveness is more mature.
  • We have leveraged downtown redevelopment.
  • Las Vegas is content with the role of Los Angeles suburb—the Lakers and Dodgers are home teams—but Phoenix sees Los Angeles as its rival. Phoenix has more of a sense of who it is and what it wants to be.
  • Phoenix has taken more care in the design of its public buildings and public spaces. Libraries and schools are “strong visual community assets.” Even its freeways are decorated with public art and landscaping that reflect the surrounding area.
  • Arizona isn’t as conservative as portrayed on cable news. Its voters have supported bold initiatives and higher taxes to pay for them—for university expansions, economic development efforts, light rail—when they see a potential economic payoff or an important step to being a world-class city. During the past decade, the city of Phoenix and the state contributed more than $1 billion to seed a bioscience and research-based economy.
  • Arizona State University is working to give Phoenix a major economic driver by becoming a research university. This should create opportunity and help to keep the best and brightest students here after they graduate. If there’s one thing Las Vegas should envy about Phoenix, it’s the willingness to invest in higher education and understanding that it’s key to a city’s success in the new global economy.
  • A number of renewable energy companies are locating in the Phoenix area. First Solar, already headquartered here, is building a four-and-a-half million-square-foot facility in Mesa. Power One is opening a manufacturing plant in Phoenix. Suntech Power, China’s largest solar panel manufacturer, built its first US plant in Goodyear and is now boosting its output. Las Vegas is having solar success, but not on this scale.

The past few years, I’ve felt that Phoenix and Arizona have been adrift. The strongest economic engine for a decade or more had been home-building, and that, of course, came to an abrupt halt when the sub-prime mortgage crisis nearly tanked the entire nation in 2008. And we haven’t done ourselves any favor by taking actions that make us look intolerant in the eyes of many people in the nation.

Squires’s article has helped me see that maybe things in Phoenix aren’t so bad. We might yet become that world-class city we aspire to be.

How are things going in your city? Let me know.

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