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Every five years, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration requires communities that are part of economic development districts and hope to receive federal grant funding to create five-year plans. Wednesday was the first step in that process for Graham and Greenlee counties.

Representatives from both counties sat down with Maria Porter, the new economic development program manager for the SouthEastern Arizona Governments Organization. SEAGO in a non-profit organization that helps local governments find solutions to area-wide problems and links them to state and federal agencies.

Throughout the a “Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy” process, Porter said participants look at the area’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and identify goals.

Five years ago, those involved in the process identified the counties’ strengths as their historic downtowns, outdoor recreation including the Mount Graham Golf Course, safe communities and schools and multiple water sources. Among their goals were further golf course improvements, airport development, tourism and river recreation, and expanding current industry and attracting new business.

They also concluded that Graham and Greenlee counties suffer from limited affordable housing, a small tax base, flight to other communities, limited art and cultural opportunities, and remote location. They said both could be threatened by mine closures, flooding, the growth of online retail, resistance to change and a small skilled work force.

This time around, SEAGO has contracted with Northern Arizona University’s Economic Policy Institute to participate in the process and to write the report that goes to the federal government.

Porter, who began her job in July, said she came aboard at just the right time.

“It’s great to kind of start right when we’re in this planning process because I am getting to know the different voices that are at the table and I’m getting the chance to be able to hear, you know, their accomplishments and their thoughts on the last CEDS and the strategy and goals they identified,” Porter said.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Porter said she learned that five years ago, there was the perception that area residents weren’t interested in shopping locally and there weren’t many opportunities for entrepreneurs. Nowadays, CEDS committee members believe neither of those things are true anymore.

“One thing definitely that resonated with me after the meeting were just the key factors that five years ago were identified as weaknesses or threats and how they really turned around in the last five years and how now they would be seen as strength and opportunities,” Porter said.

Porter said she’ll be meeting with Graham and Greenlee representatives a few more times in the coming months. Those representatives include local government officials, Eastern Arizona College’s Small Business Development Center, Arizona Commerce Authority and the United Way of Graham and Greenlee counties.

The plan will likely be turned into the federal government in April, she said.

“One key focus that EDA has as well is trying to ensure that resiliency is built into the entire document. So as we’re setting goals, we’re also looking at strategies for over the next five years and how to make them happen,” Porter said. “We want to ensure that if there is any situations as a pandemic or something comes up, that resiliency is a key piece in what we’re trying to accomplish so that we can still reach our goals.”

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