Economic Development: Verde Valley showcases growth at symposium

Buddy Rocha Jr.

Buddy Rocha Jr.

COTTONWOOD -- Economic development in the Verde Valley was on display Thursday as the Arizona Association for Economic Development held a Northern Arizona Regional Economic Development Symposium here.

The statewide association of economic development professions drew participants from throughout Northern Arizona and the state to the Cottonwood Recreation Center.

During an afternoon segment entitled "Economic Gardening in the Verde Valley," panelists discussed how existing assets were used to cultivate the local economy, even through a difficult recession.

Cottonwood Economic Development Director Casey Rooney moderated the panel, which also included Linda Buchanan, community education coordinator of Yavapai College, Jodie Filardo, the vice-chair of the Verde Valley Regional Economic Organization, Maynard Keenan, a member of the Verde Valley Wine Consortium, and Buddy Rocha Jr., Economic Development director of the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

Buchanan spoke of the development of the college's viticulture curriculum to teach the growing of grapes and production of wine, beginning with a basic tasting class.

She said there is "nothing more capitally intense as wine development" in a community, fundamentally changing what agriculture looks like. Yavapai College challenged the community to raise the investment privately. "We continue to need support in any way possible in order to break ground in 2013."

But Buchanan says the college has already become a "magnet beyond Arizona for the southwestern states for arid land region farming."

Casey Rooney introduced Maynard Keenan, who he described as the entrepreneur on the panel. Keenan had helped start up the college curriculum.

Keenan, who is best known for his association with the rock band Tool, told the gathering that he grew up in a small town in Michigan, where his family raised all its own food and his father was a high school teacher. When a friend introduced him to Jerome, another small town, he began to wonder what he might do with all those hills.

Keenan says he has probably invested about $10 million in the industry and production during the ensuing years.

"What we are seeing is an opportunity going forward in Old Town Cottonwood and Jerome. We expect to see that spread to Clarkdale and Camp Verde."

He has a new project that will help small growers succeed faster.

Keenan said he is building a wine cooperative in Camp Verde, so that growers who have small crops can press their grapes, "and get their own brand going without all the capital expense."

Filardo described the evolution of the Verde Valley Regional Economic Development Coalition and its "driven initiatives." Those initiatives include the Verde Valley Agricultural Coalition to expand the local agricultural base.

A broadband coalition would provide "utility-grade broadband" service for the Verde Valley.

"Someone needs to own the project but we can all collaborate and support it for success," she said.

The last speaker was Rocha, who told the group that his community is looking to diversifying its markets and become more mainstream and less isolated.

Rocha has surprising background in economic development in Iraq where he was stationed with the Army. His job was to look at job creation in local communities.

He said he learned a lot from that position and recognizes that his community, sprawling among Camp Verde, Clarkdale and Rimrock, must unify its resources, improve its communication and participate in the community outside the Nation's boundaries.

The Indian community also wants to diversify its agriculture to be less dependent upon outside markets. Currently their land primarily grows alfalfa.

He says the tribe has an issue "with retaining folks with education. How do you bring local folks back?"

Rocha talked about the need to improve the community's revenue base. He says the Yavapai-Apache Nation does not have its own tourism. But he notes that the Verde Valley is bristling with historic and archeological sites with which "we look forward to partnering."

Participants in the Regional Symposium enjoyed two walking tours that included historic Old Town Cottonwood and the Wine Industry.

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