The Economic Bases Are Loaded in Northern Arizona

Economic development leaders in Coconino, Navajo, and Apache counties have crafted a powerful metaphor to describe the region’s emerging economic strategy, and it’s a classic: baseball. The three counties of Northern Arizona are losing their all-star economic players, the four coal plants that have historically been an integral part of the team. The economic contribution of these plants – thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue –  is nearly impossible to replace. Instead, the region is taking a page from the Oakland A’s, in the film “Moneyball.” With limited means and methods of attraction, the region is changing its focus from flashy all-stars to foundational base hits, aiming to replace the jobs and revenue. 

Just over a year prior, Coconino, Navajo and Apache counties agreed to come together as a team and apply for NACo’s Building Resilient Economies in Coal Communities (BRECC) Action Challenge, a technical assistance program supported by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The team was competitively selected and undertook a year-long planning process with Community Builders, drawing on our long history of helping rural western communities revitalize their economies. In early 2024, the region completed a BRECC Economic Diversification Plan that articulates clear goals, strategies, and initiatives to help the region focus on the best methods to get on base. This game plan outlines the assets and initiatives that the region can leverage to strengthen their economy beyond coal. With a “base hits” strategy, the three counties are focusing on the economic potential of smaller projects, businesses, and industries that cumulatively produce new jobs and revenue; this strategy will also diversify the economy, making it more resilient in the long run.

Adding to the team and creating strong partnerships has been foundational to Northern Arizona’s “base hits” strategy and helped build early momentum in the region. The team is currently led by the three counties and two economic development entities, REAL AZ and the Economic Collaborative of Northern Arizona (ECoNA), but they have also developed an impactful, team-like relationship with the three utilities operating local plants, APS, SRP, and TEP. The three utility providers have helped provide startup funding, technical assistance, and community development support through a Utilities’ Grant Program, which provides grant funding to communities impacted by the current and planned closures of coal-fired generating stations. APS has also supported the development of a middle-mile broadband loop, filling a crucial hole in the region’s infrastructure. 

Local First Arizona, a community and economic development non-profit, is also a strong teammate. Through their Arizona Economic Resource Center, Local First Arizona has assisted more than 120 organizations across the three counties with free grant writing and related services. The result: more than $13 million in competitive funding for the region since 2021. Each award counting as a successful hit! Several grants will help prepare projects up for bat to catalyze investment, create jobs, and earn revenue. For example, the City of St. Johns is leveraging a USDA Rural Innovation Stronger Economy (RISE) grant to develop an Innovation Center that provides training and job placement services, the City of Winslow received USDA funding to promote its Farmers market, and the Page-Lake Powell Chamber of Commerce will invest Arizona Office of Tourism funding to increase visitation to the area. 

One early win in the works is to develop a scoreboard, a tool to track these base hits and show the cumulative impact of the economic development projects in the region. By demonstrating progress and the benefits of regional collaboration, tracking metrics will help maintain momentum as more and more projects and communities get on base.

A metaphor is only as strong as the concept behind it, and, in this case, the power of reframing economic goals into smaller, more realistic priorities and building a strong team is certainly conclusive. With their team in place, their game plan in hand, and a number of early wins, the bases are loaded in Northern Arizona!

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