When you're talking Europe, the periphery (Greece, etc.) is ailing, while the core, especially Germany and Scandinavia, is doing well. In Phoenix, the situation is reversed. To be sure, the depression has clobbered huge swaths of Phoenix suburbia, left Pinal County circling the drain and driven a stake into the dreams of Superstition Vistas and Buckeye with 400,000 poor boobs from the Midwest. Glendale is underwater on its super mortgage to hucksters and Westgate is in foreclosure. And the compromised, local-yokel professional seers have once again pushed out their prediction of "recovery," this time to 2015. Still, what little economic activity that's happening is occurring in places such as Scottsdale and Chandler.
The news for the city of Phoenix is gloomy. What few companies are coming to the metro area are setting up shop on the periphery. Banner Health, which killed a hospital on the Phoenix Biosciences Campus that would have led to a quantum leap in its synergies, has teamed up with the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to establish a "world class" treatment facility in Gilbert. (The irony here is that Anderson is part of the Texas Medical Center in central Houston that should be the model for the Phoenix campus). ASU and the Mayo Clinic are setting up a medical school in north Scottsdale. Even as central Phoenix is clearcut with huge swaths of empty land, a big data center chose Chandler for a new operation, among the other new projects and expansions that the suburbs can boast. Even within the city, venerable law firm Fennemore Craig stabbed downtown (well, Midtown) in the back, relocating to 24th and Camelback.
As far as I can tell, this isn't even being discussed in the Phoenix mayoral race. Yet it's one of the biggest problems facing the city and metro area.
The best of America's cities are moving in exactly the opposite direction. Seattle is one good example but hardly the only one. Younger people and empty-nest baby boomers like the energy and convenience of the city, especially a vibrant downtown (I can see four cranes from my condo window, soon to be five). The creative force that quality density encourages is now being appreciated. This trend will accelerate in a high energy future. So once again, metro Phoenix is left at another competitive disadvantage, because all these cities also have plenty of suburbs, and they don't all look alike, either.
Metro Phoenix's radical decentralization is extremely costly, particularly if the externalities are priced in (e.g. loss of cooling agricultural land, emissions, etc.). These greenfield developments are only inexpensive via the most shallow calculations, but those are what counts in a state run by the Real Estate Industrial Complex. All these office tilt-ups with their vast surface parking lots require driving long distances, almost always in single-occupancy car trips. I know people there who drive 100 miles a day and think nothing of it. Good luck when gasoline is $10 a gallon. Even in car-crazy Houston, the Texas Medical Center is on light rail, so people have options. Big stretches of Phoenix's light-rail line (we built it, you bastards) traverse blighted, empty land. The bias to suburbia also encourages disengagement and isolation — no wonder Arizona is kook central. It discourages recruitment of the best creative-class workers. And, in general, it does nothing to expand the pie and turn around the region's ghastly economic (much less social) performance. There is no quality, competitive major metro without a strong central core and downtown. Thus, every coup on the periphery will continue to be triply offset by the costs of a city of Phoenix in decline.
The solutions are well known. Phoenix should put all its energies into building out the downtown Biosciences Campus, bulking up the UA med school and academic research, adding the pharmacy school, a hospital, private-sector research and development, and biomedical manufacturing. Don't take T-Gen for granted. ASU deciding to team up with Mayo in north Scottsdale ought to be a wake-up call about the city's slow and halting commitment to the downtown campus. The city should create a real center-city economic-development authority (and kill off the worthless zombie organizations) that will recruit businesses especially from Southern California. City Hall should make the center city the cheapest, fastest place to do business. Banked land should be taxed. Infill should get incentives (and Bell Road is not infill). Best-practices nationwide should be emulated.
Yet none of this is happening. Instead, we have the walking dead mayor (with New Times devastating appraisal). We have a mayoral debate that seems to boil down to: "Ug, public employees very bad!" vs. "Public employees are kinda bad in some cases, but not as much as you say." Meanwhile, the wealthy stewards and major non-profits that hold a real city together are lacking. Everybody else is just waiting for housing to come back (good luck with that). And the toxic sense that Phoenix's loss is the "Valley's" gain continues.