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Off to work they go: Majority of Pinal workers commute outside county

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WASHINGTON – Andrew Clegg’s commute from his Arizona City home to his former job in Maricopa County took 45 to 90 minutes on a good day – hours if there was a wreck on Interstate 10.

The Census Bureau this week confirmed what Clegg knew: It wasn’t the distance that made the trip so long, it was the tens of thousands of others heading in the same direction at the same time.

bureau report on commuting patterns this week said that more than half of Pinal County residents leave the county for work, with most of them heading north to Maricopa County. The report estimates that about 57,000 workers make the trek every day.

“I’m not surprised,” said Clegg, who has since given up his commute for a job closer to home.

The Census report, based on surveys between 2006 and 2010, said that only 46.7 percent of workers who live in Pinal County stay there for their jobs. No other county in the state has fewer than 77 percent of its workers employed in their home county.

Pinal County spokeswoman Heather Murphy said the reason for the exodus is pretty simple – the county’s population has exploded in recent years and there are more jobs in the Phoenix metro area.

“Until we grow and balance the job market here in Pinal County better, we’re to have some of our residents leaving for work,” Murphy said.

Despite its booming growth – the county grew from 179,727 residents in 2000 to 375,770 in 2010, the Census said – Pinal is still mostly rural, with its population spread out over an area larger than Connecticut. Murphy said that low population density means fewer jobs.

Industries that draw workers to Phoenix include federal and state government, banking, public services and sports venues, Murphy said. But she noted that two growing hospitals – Banner Ironwood in San Tran Valley and Florence Hospital at Anthem – could help keep workers in Pinal.

Clegg pointed to Greek yogurt and cream cheese production facilities that moved into the county recently and said they should also bring more jobs to the community.

Clegg is the director of business attraction and development for the Central Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes Casa Grande, Coolidge, Eloy and Pinal County.

In some ways, Clegg said, the county’s location is both a benefit and detriment to bringing in business.

It is sandwiched between the state’s two major metro areas with rails and interstates running through it, creating potential for transportation and distribution businesses. But its rural character and small cities can make it hard to market the region to potential investors.

Clegg said recent surveys show people are not commuting out of the county because they want to. Workers would prefer to stay near home, even if that means taking a pay cut.

Getting home early enough to spend more time with his family is a benefit he could not fully enjoy when he worked in Maricopa County until 2005. Today, he can get home early enough to help his kids with homework and take them to soccer practice and karate.

“Being able to get off work at 5 and get back home by 5:15 … is very important to myself and other residents,” Clegg said. “We would like our residents to work in the places that they live.”