I was in Peoria yesterday to give a talk to the City Council. Peoria is a suburb of Phoenix, but it is intent on having its own identity and economy. The City has a population pushing 150,000 spread over an amazing 180 square miles. They like their open space in Peoria. It’s a great looking city.

Going to Peoria was a bit nostalgic and a bit of a culture shock. It was nostalgic because Joyce and I purchased our first home in Glendale Arizona, just next to Peoria, and our first son was born in Phoenix exactly 34 years ago today. It was a culture shock because Arizonans aren’t afraid of change, in contrast to many Californians these days.

I saw so much public infrastructure spending in Maricopa County (home of Phoenix, Peoria, and several other cities) that I wondered if the County had more going on than the entire state of California. They did some checking, and they think so. Imagine that, a county with under 4 million people investing more in public capital than California with its over 36 million people. It’s because they plan on having a future.

In my talk, I was asked about the role of government, and I talked about safety-net issues, but I failed to discuss some of the positive things that government can do. A key is Infrastructure investment, public investment in capital that would make private capital more productive. Freeways, ports, airports, the Central Arizona Project, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Rural Electrification Program, and the Panama Canal are examples, and the list could go on and on. The problem with the current federal stimulus plan is that so little of it is being used to create productive capital.

Local governments have options. Ventura City has its Jobs Investment Program, where they partnered with a venture capital firm to attempt to bring tech business to Ventura. San Jose has a different type of partnership with a venture capital firm. They are trying to create job opportunities for their lower-wage workers.

Peoria itself is doing some interesting things. It is actually trying to recruit at least one private college. That’s right they are working to help an existing college pack up and change states, and they have colleges considering taking them up on it. They are also looking at their version of a possible partnership with a venture capital firm. Best of all, they asked me out to talk to them.

One of most important things local government can do to help growth is to be really ready for it, to have the infrastructure in place or ready to go, to have the planning and zoning in place. It looks like Peoria does this pretty well too. I think that if you wanted to locate your business there, they could identify possible sites and get you up and running pretty quick, quite a contrast with California cities where you could fight for years before you start construction, if you start construction.

No city is perfect. The economy has hurt Arizona, its cities, and its citizens. But they respond differently. Instead of California’s gridlock and malaise, Arizona is optimistically working its way through the recession. You get a sense of a future that you don’t get in California. Peoria’s peripheral growth has also left the older sections of town looking a bit ragged, but they are working on it. I saw lots of work being done to improve the look of the historical section.

Best of all, Peoria and the rest of Maricopa county are middle-class friendly, another contrast with much of California. Housing is affordable—the daughter of one person I spoke to had an $80,000 offer in for a single family residence—and unemployment, while up, is far less than in California, 9.6 percent versus 12.6 percent. Families can live and work in Central Arizona.

I’m willing to bet that Central Arizona’s recovery will be far stronger than California’s recovery.