Prescott. To most Arizonans and visitors, the small, picturesque city a mere 90 minutes north of Phoenix serves as a living symbol of the state’s fabled, pioneering past.
From its earliest origins in the mid-19th century, when it was named the Arizona Territory’s first official capital, through the gold and silver mining boom, all the way to the city’s abiding tradition of hosting the world’s oldest rodeo, Prescott’s been polishing up its colorful cachet of history.
But now, seven years after suffering the devastating blow that was the Great Recession of 2008-2009, Prescott is hitching its economic wagon to an ambitious new plan, one that’s designed to carry the city and its surrounding areas toward a brighter and more progressive future.
To make it happen, Jeff Burt, who heads up the relatively new Department of Economic Initiatives in Prescott, says his office has a swamped agenda. Burt explains that when the city was climbing out of what he refers to as the “lean years” following the economic downturn, Prescott city planners focused much of their attention on developing retail and tourism, through which they hoped to spark investment and growth.
It wasn’t a bad formula, but the city is now looking to do more. Leaders are hankering to get back into the mainstream of economic development and broaden Prescott’s activities beyond just retail and tourism.
One of their objectives is to shield the city’s economy from future threats. In essence, they’re trying to establish better balance through a full-scale, economic development effort. That effort began two years ago, when Burt’s department was tasked with creating jobs, raising household incomes and seeking more capital investments.
“Tourism has always been and always will be an important strength of Prescott’s,” Burt explains. “But we’re looking at some other components to tack onto retail and tourism, that will help the city become more diverse and less dependent on any one sector.”
Airport a strategic key
But how does all of this translate into work? Burt says that to help flesh out a workable plan, the city has undertaken a careful study of Prescott’s assets, particularly the ones that can be improved and used as springboards for future economic growth.
One key asset is the city’s airport located roughly seven miles north of downtown. The Prescott Municipal Airport at Ernest Love Field is a relatively small, general-aviation facility, served largely by Great Lakes Airlines. Last year—working from the recommendations found in a 2006 economic impact study of the airport by the Prescott Chamber of Commerce—Burt and other city officials came up with an ambitious strategy and vision for the airport and its surrounding land area, which comprises roughly 8,000 acres.
The plan calls for significant investment in the airport, its infrastructure, facilities and operations, Burt explains.
“We see [the airport] as an ‘engine’ because of where it’s located, right in the middle of the region. It provides great access to the metro area and connects people to where they want to live, work and play.”
Some of the investment will go toward improving airport access roads, lengthening the runway and building a new terminal.
“It’s probably a 20-year plan,” Burt says, “but it will help the airport remain viable and enable Prescott to catalyze economic growth in the future.
“It’s a canvas,” Burt continues, referring to the 8,000 acres around the airport that are currently being used for agriculture and grazing. But the key to anything we do, we have to remember, is water. We have to be very careful about how we allocate water resources.”
Aside from its agreeable weather, Prescott is blessed with an abundance of natural and cultural resources that keep it on the A-lists of many publications and business consortiums for livable American cities.
One of them, Nerdwallet — a popular online financial and lifestyle website — ranked Prescott one of the top 10 Arizona towns for young families to live. With a handful of colleges and universities, several top-notch healthcare facilities, some great museums and an increasing number of sophisticated restaurants and shopping options, Prescott has style that is somewhat rare for a city its size.
“I think the people who guide this city’s development understand the raw material that they have to work with,” Burt says. “All communities look to identify strengths…and it’s generally recognized that we have a lot of natural assets. But, the question remains, how do we build upon them without denigrating them?”
Another component of the city’s economic development plan is bolstering the strong numbers Prescott’s been generating in the employment sector. Jobs in healthcare, education and manufacturing are on the rise, Burt reports. As of May 2015, the unemployment rate was around 5.6 percent, the lowest it’s been since 2009. And the number of employed workers in the city is the highest it’s been in five years.
As Burt and other city leaders continue to implement their strategy for a more prosperous future, the benefits of living in the greater Prescott Valley should continue to increase. As Burt well knows, it’s not a smooth trail to the city’s future.
“We’ve certainly got plenty of work to do, but I think we’re convinced that we’re on the right track,” he affirms.
One thing is certain: Prescott will never cut its deep historical roots or its true West brand. Supporting those facts is an increase in national and international tourists who say they visit the city expressly to stroll down Whiskey Row, mingle with a few bona-fide cowboys and take in Prescott’s remarkable surroundings.
“There still seems to be a strong interest in the old west,” Burt says, with satisfaction. “Those things are all still very much present and alive here, and they’re not going away.”
Written by Bruce Farr
Photography by Mark Lipczynski