"When you have one boom on top of another, like in Grand Junction, where an amenity boom is in full swing, and the oil and gas boom was plopped down right on top of it," says Rasker, "you have this overheated economy. Locals can't afford to live there." In Superior, the emerging amenity economy has yet to arrive in full force. But it's coming. And with Phoenix sprawling ever closer, and the one-lane highway that leads into town swelling into a four-laner, it may not take long.
So the question for
Superior is: Will an industrial economy, a workforce of more than
1,000 miners, and the privatization and sinking of Oak Flat be able
to coexist with artists, rock climbers and folks who just want to
live in a charming little community less than an hour from the
outskirts of Phoenix?
Hoping to find an answer, I drive about 20 miles east to Miami, Ariz. It's dark when I get to town, and I'm tired and hungry and desperate for a motel, so I stop at the first one I see. The room feels as if it hasn't been cleaned in a while. True, the sanitation strip on the toilet is intact, but the slightly sticky floor has me worried. Not to mention the sheets, and the countertops, and the shower with a missing showerhead. Mexican bandera music blares from a big white truck parked in front of the room next door; on the ground next to it are empty Negra Modelo and Bud Light bottles and boxes, along with the detritus of a Mexican feast.
There are other big white trucks in the parking lot, too, with the telltale orange flags of the mining industry jutting up from their back bumpers, and two people-carrier vans with orange lights on top. This isn't just a seedy motel, I soon realize; it's a housing unit for mining contractors. The contractors here are based in Nevada, but the workers are from all over the place - Houston and Katy, Texas; Calexico, Calif. Some are U.S. citizens, others aren't.
Contractors like these have flocked to Arizona's copper country during the past two years in order to invigorate what, just a few years ago, seemed like a dying industry. Near Miami, the Pinto Valley Mine is getting prepared to reopen after shutting down a decade ago. A new project, the Carlota Mine, is tooling up to start producing nearby.
Though the industry has faltered in recent years, mining has never died. A giant tailings pile - replete with grass and grazing cows - lines a good part of one side of the town. Above it looms the big black smokestack of the Phelps-Dodge smelter, which, together with the copper-rod plant, employs some 400 people. But now there's a new boomtown buzz in the streets: Mining trucks rumble by a billboard on the main drag that reads: Careers at Freeport McMoRan; Better for you, Better for America.
At its core, Miami looks a lot like Superior. Old buildings, which either appear empty or house antique stores, line the downtown streets, and small homes dangle precariously from steep hillsides. The economics, according to Census figures, aren't much better than Superior's, even though mining wages never completely dried up. Twenty-four percent of the town's 2,000 or so residents live below poverty level, and the population shrank between 1990 and 2006.
But on the fringes of Miami, there's a Safeway and a Wal-Mart and other big retailers of the sort that Superior has never known. These, it seems, are the institutions built by the new mining economy. And more are on their way, according to Chris Martin of the Southern Gila County Economic Development Council. Since the boom began in earnest early last year, a new bank has come to town, new restaurants are opening up, old homes are being renovated, and more national retail chains are sniffing around, says Martin.
The boom and its potential impacts seem to be on everyone's minds. At a hip little coffee shop in downtown Globe (which has melded with neighboring Miami), it's the main topic of conversation for a group of older women who are clearly more of the amenity culture than the mining boom. They seem excited, but also scared; worried that the sudden influx of workers - there could be more than 1,000 temporary jobs and 800-900 new permanent jobs from expanded, reopened or new mines in the next few years - will put too much of a burden on the local infrastructure. Of course, one of them adds, it might be worth it, if the boom brings a new bowling alley to town.
From downtown Miami or Globe, it all seems like a big deal. Yet it helps to look at the bigger picture, says Vest, the economist. Though copper production is likely to ramp up significantly in Arizona in coming years, it's not the boon to the statewide economy that its boosters claim it is. Due to increased mechanization, fewer people are needed to mine more copper. Mining may create 2,000 or so new jobs, says Vest. But that pales in comparison to the number of jobs lost in the state's construction industry since the housing slump began: some 20,000.
Martin, however, sees an even
larger picture, and what he sees makes him optimistic. Miami's new
boom, he argues, is immune from state and even national economic
downturns. Why? The people buying all the copper live in China.