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Little Town of Mesa Tied to Phoenix's Growing Pain : Smaller Neighbor Is Fierce Rival for Developments

February 17, 1985|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Students of marine life will remember the remora as a small scavenger that swims in tandem with the shark, living comfortably on the larger fish's food droppings.

And, in metropolitan America, it's analogous with the aggressive suburb living on the "fat" of the adjoining urban center for which it serves as a bedroom community.

But in this desert oasis of explosive growth, the shark that is Phoenix is currently eyeing, apprehensively, a remora to its southeast that is handily outstripping it in terms of both growth and vitality, thanks to accidents of natural boundaries (and ample water supplies) and just plain old competitiveness.

Hub of Growth Area

It has become impossible--and some say dangerous--to ignore what is happening in the once-sleepy, once Mormon-dominated, little town of Mesa, the hub of a growth area known loosely as the East Valley.

The "how" and the "why" of such one-upmanship is an unusual case study of the nature of urban growth, what forces nurture it and shape it, and the effect that political maturity has on it.

Any "worries" that Phoenix's planners may have about the future seem odd when measured against the concerns of many urban areas in the country facing declining population and a stagnant or declining economic base because none of that--not even in the eyes of the most pessimistic viewers--is in the cards for sprawling Maricopa County, of which Phoenix is the focal point.

Explosive Growth Seen

Far from it, because the near-tripling in size that it has experienced in the last 15 years--from 581,000 in 1970, to 1.5 million today--is, incredibly, expected to double again in the next 15 years to a mind-boggling 3 million population by the turn of the century.

"In effect," said James A. Chalmers, a principal in Mountain West Research, "we've gained every year for the past 10 a city equivalent to the size of Billings, Mont., about 66,000 people. From 1980 until the turn of the century that translates into a 3% annual growth--as against a gain of less than 1% for the country as a whole.

"Twenty-five years ago Phoenix didn't even make the top 50 cities in terms of population."

And while the World Almanac this year ranks metropolitan Phoenix ninth in the country in terms of population, "we're actually about fourth in terms of absolute growth, or perhaps even second, behind only Dallas and Fort Worth," Chalmers said recently from Mountain West Research's offices in adjoining Tempe.

"We're about to go into the growth phase that Atlanta went through in the '70s when it became the premier Southeast regional corporate headquarters city."

So, why the gloom reflected in a recent projection released by Southwest Savings & Loan Assn. in Phoenix? "For more than a century, central Phoenix has been the focal point of political and economic activity for the state, county and city itself. Today, however, this dominance is threatened by problems of competition and identity. Central Phoenix is headed toward an ever-declining share of residential, commercial and industrial growth . . . and political strength."

The key is in Southwest's use of the words "central" Phoenix and "share," and in a curious geographic girdle that is tightly laced around the city's midriff and that is literally "squirting" the area's new growth into Mesa's eagerly waiting hands.

The ominous part of all this, from Phoenix's standpoint, is not so much a growth rate in Mesa that is even greater than the parent city's--a doubling of the Phoenix area's population between now and the end of the century versus a tripling of Mesa's in the same period--but in the nature of that growth.

Or, as Southwest Savings put it: "By the year 2000, this (East Valley) area will have 34% of the entire Metro area's population . . . up from 27% in 1980. At the same time, Central Phoenix's share will decline to less than half the East Valley's share.

"In terms of jobs, this current trend shows clear dominance by outlying areas over Central Phoenix throughout this decade. Of the 250,000 new jobs to be created, 200,000 will emerge in those outlying areas.

"Central Phoenix, by comparison, will capture only 50,000 jobs. And, by 1995, if these current projections hold, the East Valley will be home to 30% of the Metro area's new large manufacturing employers. Only 15% of these big firms will be located in Central Phoenix 10 years from now."

Magnet Was Predictable

And, in this process, of course, Phoenix's still-mushrooming rate of growth over the next 15 years will have to be financed from a tax base that, in no way, is keeping pace with this growth.

Mesa and the East Valley's emergence as the hot, new magnet for in-migration, in the opinion of Gary Driggs, president of Phoenix's statewide, $4-billion, Western Savings & Loan Assn., was not simply predictable, "it was inevitable, given the placement of the natural barriers around Phoenix."

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