/ Modified oct 22, 2018 10:51 a.m.

Understanding the Issues in Arizona's 3rd Congressional District

A closer look at challenges in Tucson, Nogales and Yuma.

As candidates in the race for Arizona's 3rd Congressional District debated, Arizona 360 took a closer look at the district they aim to represent. The district covers all of Santa Cruz County and portions of Pima, Pinal, Maricopa and Yuma counties.

While Pima County has one of the state's lowest unemployment rates, its recovery from the recession has happened at a slower pace compared to Maricopa County and other cities of similar size. In the Tucson metro area, we got insight about the local economy from Amber Smith, president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce.

"At the same time, we have been progressive and consistent in our growth and recovery, which also means when there are crashes we don't fall as far as some of those other communities," Smith said.

She credits recent development projects like the Tucson Streetcar for helping jumpstart growth in the area. Private and public investments downtown total $1 billion, according to Smith. The chamber is advocating for improvements to the metro area's infrastructure to draw more businesses.

"We've had national site selectors come out and look at our community. … They identified our roads as being a problem that has got to be addressed," Smith said.

In the city of Nogales, we learned how a sluggish local economy has challenged its school system. Santa Cruz County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, at nearly 12 percent. Between 2010 and 2017, the population decreased by nearly 4 percent, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Superintendent Fernando Parra believes economic woes are tied to enrollment drops in the Nogales Unified School District.

"It used to be where families were moving here. Well, now we're seeing that families aren't just moving out of the state, they're moving back to Mexico. Many are moving to Tucson or Phoenix," Parra said.

The school district serves about 6,000 students at 10 schools. About 100 fewer students are enrolled this year, causing the district to miss out on about $400,000 in public funding. Despite financial challenges, Parra said the voters continue to prioritize education and approve the district's ballot initiatives.

"Nogales High School is at 95 percent graduation rate, which is huge," Parra said. He is proud of his students, but sees a lack of job opportunities for them at home. "Outside of the Nogales Unified School District as an employer… we have the Walmart, we have the city, we have the county, we have the produce industry."

Concerns over enrollment and funding aside, Parra believes the district's proximity to the border is a benefit because students are more likely to be bilingual and biliterate.

Along the border, agriculture generates more than $3 billion annually in Yuma County, the westernmost region of the congressional district. Lou Gum, news director of Colorado River Public Media, explained efforts to develop stronger economic ties across the border.

"There's a big push to see this whole area as an economic region that isn't just about Arizona or southwestern Arizona," Gum said. "You're going to see more of this, both in higher education and in industry."

Engagement from voters in Yuma has waned in recent elections. Gum said that could change as issues related to the border and water conservation become more prominent, and as its young population grows up.

"The average age is 31. There are more people under 18 here than any other age group. So, look to the future to see how the vote will change."

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