I didn't start this. An article in the Phoenix Business Journal is headlined, "Why Phoenix should be looking up to Seattle, not Austin." Behind it is the legitimate concern, written about here often, how the city is not attracting anywhere near its share of young, educated and high-skilled talent. In addition, as the article states, "The Texas capital beat out the Valley for a $300 million Apple Inc. campus last year, and General Motors is also placing a new technology center there." Naturally, it contains the obligatory, "Arizona has plenty of positive attributes in its corner: cost of living, proximity to California, business costs and nice winters."
Here are a few reasons why Phoenix can't be Seattle: No major headquarters of global corporations and non-profits; no world-class clusters in aviation and software; no civic stewards who invest heavily in the city, nurture its cultural assets and lead its continuous reinvention; no 24/7 downtown with hundreds of stores, restaurants, Pike Place Market, flagship Nordstrom, etc., and little critical mass in a dense, lively, cool center city. No diversified economy or University of Washington. No reputation for tolerance, progressive politics and long history of attracting world talent, whether for airplanes, software, biotech, world health or game development. We've covered some of this before.
Austin is sprawly, hot and has poor transit. Alas, here are a few reasons why Phoenix can't be Austin: It's not the capital of a state that puts attracting business, good jobs and huge amounts of federal money ahead of crazy ideology and revels in its power. No University of Texas. No world-famous music scene in a relatively dense quarter of downtown and tolerant "Keep Austin Weird" liberalism in the middle of a red state. No oil money. No history of largesse from LBJ (would President McCain have done anything for Phoenix? No.). No first-rate technology cluster, built up over many years, attracting top talent to the headquarters, R&D centers and labs of scores of well-known corporations.
Neither Seattle nor Austin is a retirement destination. Both have citizens that are deeply attached to them, but nobody lives there for the weather.
One other thing: Neither suffers this truly bizarre complex about their names. Even the Business Journal story felt compelled to keep going back and forth between "Phoenix" and "the Valley." This is a proxy for the Balkanized self-destruction of the metropolitan area, where it can't even agree on what is to me the most magical of big-city names: Phoenix. Otherwise, what the hell "Valley" are you talking about? San Fernando? Silicon? San Joaquin? Red River? Sonoma? Shenandoah? Death? For god's sake, use Phoenix.
As for the "plenty of positive attributes," the supposed low cost of living is a longstanding excuse and platitude. Only it's difficult to actually prove. With so many low-wage jobs, purchasing power is diminished. The housing crash destroyed household wealth on a much greater scale in metro Phoenix than in Seattle, Austin, Denver or San Diego (peer cities). Almost everyone must own a car in Phoenix (unlike Seattle), so there's the price of gasoline, rarely low compared with the nation and a high cost given the long drives required by so much sprawl. The supposed favorable business costs haven't produced a great business environment or a diversified economy. The nice winters are growing shorter. Nor will the "young city" or other myriad myths and excuses matter in a competitive world. But...whatever.
Phoenix is indisputably more populous than either Seattle or Austin. We got 'em there!
I'm not writing this to make Phoenicians feel bad. By all means, go to the Center for the Future of Arizona Web site and check out the report referenced in the story. Center founder Lattie Coor, retired president of ASU, is one of the rare natives who found great success elsewhere, came home with a determination to give back to the community, and he understands the city and state's tragic missed opportunities, risky future and potential. Alas, he's not a billionaire.
Phoenix can and should learn best practices from other cities (these are an ongoing topic of Rogue's City Desk feature). But its problems are almost unique — sprawl and such a huge population and political extremism at the state and suburban level and such a narrow economy and lack of powerful stewards and such a substantial underclass and climate change bearing down and the good years of American growth perhaps over — that it must seek some highly imaginative responses. Exactly who would carry them out, who has the capital and clout and passion, is an alpha problem. There's no lack of rich people. But few engage with the city. Phoenix's greatest opportunity is in creating a liveable, vibrant core — that is the one attribute now defining the competitive, talent-magnet city in advanced metro economies nationwide and worldwide. Alas, the political and business appetite to do so, never strong, is waning.
Are some cities doomed never to catch up? If this happens to Phoenix, it will be a largely self-inflicted wound. Oh, and "catching up" doesn't mean another housing boom (with championship golf!).