Thirty-five years ago, Queen Creek wasn’t even a town. It was just a desert farming community called Rittenhouse, located in the foothills below the San Tan Mountains, an hour southeast of Phoenix. Citrus, cotton, vegetables, and pecans grew in abundance across the area's expansive farmland. The main reason people knew it existed was because of Schnepf Farms, where city folks would sometimes come to pick their own peaches and corn.
For years after incorporating as a town in 1989, growth in Queen Creek was slow, gradual. Twenty years ago, the population was a modest 3,700 residents. Even ten years ago, it wasn't much more than a Wal-Mart and a QuikTrip surrounded by 26,000 people.
Today, though, Queen Creek is booming. With nearly 70,000 residents and more arriving every day, it's one of the fastest-growing cities in Arizona.
It’s hard to miss the signs of rapid growth. Brand-new shopping centers overtake your view as you enter the town. Construction crews and road closures herald new housing developments and infrastructure improvements. Earlier this year, Queen Creek landed on one of those lists that municipalities love to trumpet: Homes.com named it a Top 10 suburb in the nation to move.
“We’ve had record-breaking years for single-family housing permits,” says Doreen Cott, the town’s Economic Development Director who has been working for Queen Creek for 15 years. In 2020, the town issued 1,985 SFH permits, the largest number of housing permits issued in the history of the town.
What's to account for the sudden desirability of Queen Creek? Some of it's the usual suburban stuff. Families find that it's a safe place to settle down. According to neighborhoodscout.com, an analytics website that compiles and analyzes FBI crime data, Queen Creek has a lower crime rate than 87 percent of the communities in Arizona. Only seven out of roughly 1,000 residents in Queen Creek experience a property crime, compared to 24 per 1,000 statewide.
Queen Creek also ranks favorably when it comes to its school districts, with publicschoolreview.com saying it's one of the best towns in Arizona for math and reading proficiency. Schools within the Higley and Queen Creek Unified School Districts — Cortina Elementary, Desert Mountain Elementary, and Frances Brandon-Picket Elementary — all rank in the top 10 percent proficiency across the state, with Queen Creek High School ranking in the top five percent.
But the pandemic has also accelerated Queen Creek's growth. With more people working from home and less concerned about what would once have been long daily commutes, exurban communities are suddenly much more feasible. Homebuilders have responded by swapping the popular open floorplans with more separation throughout the home to ensure that everyone has their own space.
“People who were stuck in these smaller homes and more urban dense areas realized that, ‘OK, I have to work from home, so I need a home office,’” says Cott. “If my kids have to transition back [to online classes], they need a place to huddle around the dining room table.”
And there's more room to do that in Queen Creek than other Valley-area municipalities.
"You get way more space for your money out this way," a friend who recently closed on a three-bedroom, 2.5 bath home in the town recently told me when I asked why he chose Queen Creek over Mesa, Gilbert, or Chandler.
That checks out: According to Redfin, the average home sale price per square foot in Queen Creek is $228 as compared to $247 in Mesa, $257 in Gilbert, and $264 in Chandler. (Queen Creek has seen a 35.7 percent jump over the last year, though.)
Queen Creek’s financial report for the 2019–2020 fiscal year showed town revenue exceeding expectations by a whopping $6.3 million, due in large part to ongoing residential and commercial construction activity. “Homebuilders can’t keep up with the demand,” says Cott. Homebuilders like Fulton Homes are in the process of building 1,700 homes on 114 acres of open space in Queen Creek. Mattamy Homes, America’s largest privately owned homebuilder, is developing 533 Queen Creek homes on 153 acres of land in the town.
Retail is following suit. In December, the town opened its first hotel, The Hampton Inn at Queen Creek. Now, visitors have a place to stay when touring popular destinations like the Queen Creek Olive Mill, Schnepf Farms, and the Horseshoe Park & Equestrian Centre. And Cott says her department just issued a request for a proposal on a second hotel. A Costco is tentatively set to open next summer, though the plan is contingent on additional infrastructure investments on Queen Creek Road.
Interest in multifamily housing has also ticked up in Queen Creek. The New York-based real estate firm GTIS has teamed up with the Phoenix-based developer Sonoma Communities to construct a residential build-to-rent project with a proposed budget of $65 million. And IDM Companies, a Washington-based developer, recently broke ground on a 476-unit multifamily community called Acero Queen Creek Station in the heart of the town.
With the annexation of 4,150 acres of state trust land in 2019, the town council envisioned a continuation of residential and commercial development. But employers looking for expansion sites have begun to show interest too. The town’s General Plan now indicates that the zoning in this area “encourages a range of light to intensive uses such as high-tech manufacturing and related manufacturing enterprises, support industry, aerospace support, computer software, and technical service businesses.”
In May, the Queen Creek Town Council approved a $487 million budget for the 2021–2022 fiscal year, with 66 percent dedicated to capital infrastructure projects like transportation, water, police, and fire, and 25 percent allocated for roadway development to improve the heavy traffic congestion in Queen Creek. These roadway improvements include widening both Meridian Road and Ocotillo Road to two lanes in each direction. Infrastructure improvements are anticipated to be completed in late 2022.
The investments and improvements are being made with the next generation in mind. According to newly released census data, children under the age of 18 make up nearly a third of Queen Creek's population. In a recent interview with AZ Central, Town Manager John Kross said that the town’s Manswel Carter Oasis Park was twice the size as initially planned to appeal to young park visitors.
“The new focus now, and I think will be over the next few years, will be parks and recreation,” says Cott.