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8:02 AM Mon, Oct. 22nd

Election Q&A: Candidates push for economic 'diversification'

PRESCOTT - Of the 59,500 jobs in the Prescott metro area, more than 10,000 are devoted to either hotels/restaurants or retail sales.

For several of the candidates running for Prescott City Council, that is too high a percentage in one industry.

Mayoral candidate Harry Oberg notes that Prescott's economy is made up largely of the "service industry," which he said often yields "low-paying jobs."

He is pushing for more "light, clean industry" in Prescott, which he said would produce more career-type jobs.

Dan Fraijo, the other candidate vying for the mayor's post maintains that Prescott's economy is too dependent on tourism.

"We have to diversify our economic-development portfolio," Fraijo said. "Too much of our income is dependent on tourism."

Still, incumbent City Council candidate Jim Lamerson offers a different view. "Knowing that tourism is one of the major economic drivers here, I think tourism is what we hang our hat on," he said.

While Prescott Director of Economic Initiatives Jeff Burt says his department does not have a clear breakdown of how much of Prescott's economy depends on tourism, he referred to job statistics as one of the indicators.

The numbers (source: Yavapai College, Regional Economic Development Center, and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) indicate that while the health care/social assistance industry is the largest employer in the area (with 7,251 jobs), the retail trade comes in a close second, with 6,465 jobs.

Accommodation and food services (hotels and restaurants) comes in third with 3,554 jobs.

Burt points out that none of the categories caters exclusively to tourism, although the sub-set of hotels come the closest.

Along with being among the largest job categories, hotels/restaurants and the retail trade areas also are some of the fastest growing. In 2015, accommodation/food services jobs showed 19-percent growth, and the retail trade had 13-percent growth.

"The (job) diversity issue is one we're very aware of - particularly to grow business that is separate and apart from the tourism industry," Burt said.

While the economy is "doing very well on the tourism side," Burt said, "We need to step up manufacturing, distribution, back office (help desks, call centers), and destination retail (companies that serve a large geographic area, such as Costco, Sam's Club, and Trader Joe's)."

The city's priority, Burt said, is to attract "jobs that pay more than the county's median wage (about $30,500)."

So far, he said, those efforts are "doing pretty well." Burt's office has been doing visits to existing businesses in the airport area to discuss expansion opportunities, and is increasing its outreach and marketing outside the state.

A new business, Firehouse Roasters, recently moved into the airport area, and Burt said the city is also working on the possible relocation of a manufacturer from California to the Prescott Airpark area.

"Activity is picking up now that the economy is picking up," Burt said.

As one of the indicators of that, Burt pointed to Prescott's current 5.6-percent unemployment rate, which "is the lowest it has been since 2009." In addition, he said, "employment is higher than it's been since 2010."

Currently, Burt added, more than three out of every five jobs in the metro area are located in the City of Prescott.

Several of the candidates emphasized the need for a more regional approach in attracting industry to Prescott.

Council candidates Billie Orr and Steve Sischka both are pushing for strong city involvement with the Greater Prescott Regional Economic Partnership (GPREP).

Sischka said a stronger regional effort will help to "present a united front to any manufacturer that wants to come to Prescott."

Orr also emphasized the importance of a regional economic development effort, noting, "What is good for Prescott Valley is good for Prescott."

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2034, or 928-642-0951.