The Rise and Fall of an Arizona Exurb

This article from <em>High Country News</em> dissects the Arizona real estate collapse through the lens of one exurb.
April 26, 2009, 5am PDT | Nate Berg
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"Surprise, Ariz., doesn't look very surprising. It might be anywhere in the suburban West. Home Depot and Wal-Mart rise like islands from an ocean of pavement, and late-model SUVs gleam in the midday sun. Homes with red-tiled roofs line up like stucco boxes on a giant supermarket shelf. There's little to distinguish this from the hundreds of square miles of housing developments that have sprouted around Las Vegas and San Diego. If it weren't for the palm trees, you could be in suburban Salt Lake City.

But only Surprise has the Radiant Church. Inside this 55,000-square-foot behemoth, 50-inch plasma-screen televisions display huge images of American flags. Starbucks-trained baristas serve up frothy espresso drinks, and the casually dressed congregation nibbles Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The pastor, Lee McFarland, wears jeans and rides a Harley. His uncanny ability to tap into the exurban zeitgeist made this the fastest-growing megachurch in one of the nation's fastest-growing metro areas.

Radiant symbolizes the breakneck growth and prosperity that have come to define Surprise and its Western siblings. Since it was incorporated in 1960, Surprise -- an exurb of Phoenix -- has burgeoned from 500 people to over 100,000 people spread over 100 square miles. Most of that growth happened in the last decade, and it happened largely independent of any economic base, such as manufacturing, mining, farming or even high-tech industry. Instead, growth created its own economic base. To the members of Radiant Church, it must have seemed like a miracle.

Now it seems more like a mirage."

Thanks to J.P. Thompson

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Published on Friday, April 24, 2009 in High Country News
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