Evolving from its heyday as a rowdy college town, Tempe transforms into a model American city
With its namesake in mind, Tempe was given a pretty tough act to follow. Describing the valley of Tempe in Greece, early 18th century classical scholar John Lempriere said of it, “The poets have described [Tempe] as the most delightful spot on the earth, with continual cooling shades and verdant walks, which the warbling of birds rendered more pleasant and romantic, and which the gods often honored with their presence.”
While we’re not certain about all of that, there is, in fact, much to be said and praised about the virtues of Tempe, especially over the past few decades. In recent years, the city has risen to a vibrant and progressive calling, and taken its rightful place among some of the most culturally and economically attractive and diverse cities in the country.
Old meets new
Drive across the Salt River on the Old Mill Avenue bridge, along Mill Avenue toward Arizona State University, and it’s striking how little is recognizable from that same drive 25 years ago. With a few exceptions—the old façade of the Hayden Flour Mill, the unchanging landmark of “A” Mountain and the constant stream of college students crisscrossing the road between classes, for instance—you’d hardly realize you were traversing the heart of “old” downtown Tempe. That much has changed.
Last year, Livability.com rated Tempe among the top 100 U.S. cities to live in. And it’s no wonder. The current level of economic growth and development, along with the juggernaut that is ASU and other higher learning institutions, the city’s “live, work, play” quotient is sky-high.
As Tempe’s mayor, Mark Mitchell, commented recently, “The city has become a mecca for work, events, entertainment and technology.”
There are reasons why, over the past several years, Tempe has taken a willful path toward prosperity and become one of the most sought after destination cities in the southwest. Here are just a few.
Tempe has grown a lot through the decades, but its current spurt is unparalleled. Since 2000, the population has grown by 6.1 percent, and—since the obviously devastating economic downturn of 2007-09—the city has made some really exceptional strides, even beyond the expectations of the most optimistic business indicators.
It’s more than mere coincidence that tremendous growth occurred simultaneously with the development of Tempe Town Lake. As of last year, according to city officials, about $1.5 billion worth of lakeside development has either been built or is slated to be in the near term. The economic impact of the lake development to the city was tallied at around $578 million, enabling Tempe to build structures like the Tempe Center for the Arts and other cultural magnets.
Kate Borders, director of the Downtown Tempe Authority, says that, along with the city’s transit system, the lake’s development was a key turning point in Tempe’s resurgence. “It’s a song that has been overplayed, so I won’t be dazzling anyone here. But the lake and the transit system are keys to our success,” she says. “Having a large body of water within your downtown that brings activities, events, beautiful office and housing options, character and pride to your city, this is one of those assets that can’t be overlooked.”
Borders believes that Tempe is today reaping the benefits of decades of great planning that took into account the city’s unique location.
“Really and truly, a city can only create the greatest infrastructure, one that allows for the marketplace to believe that this is the best place to make investments. Then the policy has to continue to streamline the growth as it’s happening,” she explains. “Tempe had a great deal of foresight in creating a destination that essentially is landlocked, and therefore has a very manageable scale, located between transit corridors and on a beautiful body of water.”
Downtown Tempe has been a major area of concentration for development and improvement, Borders says.
“In fact, the city is laser-focused on its downtown, it’s ‘urban core’ where the powers that be are working individually and collectively to create a lasting public impact on the public open spaces and the streets that invite people downtown,” she notes.
And what people can do once they’re downtown is just as important. It goes well beyond shopping and dining.
“We want audience participation to become an indelible part of the downtown story,” says Borders. “Whether that’s a public art engagement or an impromptu a capella group performance, I see the future of a thriving downtown in the interactivity created between the players, performers and the audience.”
Arizona’s ‘beating heart’
Ty Largo, principal of Awe Collective, a Tempe-based public relations firm, has lived and worked in the city for 16 years. When his agency was selected for a year-long assignment to essentially rebrand the city and its downtown, Largo and his team went full steam ahead to create a comprehensive media, branding and design plan highlighting Tempe’s emergence as a top destination to live, work and play.
From implementing the use of trendy hashtags like #TempeRising, to redesigning the district’s website, to emphasizing the area’s endless recreational, residential and entertainment opportunities, Largo’s team demonstrated how a new look and feel can reestablish a place once primarily deemed a college town.
Largo sees major, positive forces moving Tempe’s development.
“There’s an infectious, adventurous spirit in Tempe,” he says. “The city’s always had a rebellious side. It’s always taken a different path than other cities have in their development. Now, post-recession, you can’t turn a corner without seeing a crane, new buildings or remodels. There’s so much cool development, energy and buzz in the downtown…it’s everywhere.”
Largo’s branding campaign tagline for Tempe captures the city’s vitality and diversity, he believes.
“It answers the question, where else can you kayak on a lake, or hike a mountain, or get a world-class education or see a rock concert or have a glass of wine at a fine-dining restaurant, all within walkable distance of each other?”
In developing the campaign, Largo says his team took a step back and looked at where Tempe has been, what it is now and where it is going.
“We wanted to look at all of these things against the public perception of what Tempe has been in the past and where it wants to go. The very exciting thing about this whole project is that development here has been happening at such a rapid pace. We had to match the branding to the pace of development, and make sure that it was branding that would stick.
“A fun rebellious spirit, it’s own identity, the cultural hub of the entire state; it’s the cool beating heart of Arizona. It’s the youthful, aspirational spirit and vibe that’s alive and well here.”
A good measure of Tempe’s dynamic new identity is owing to a robust spirit of entrepreneurism that the city radiates. Everywhere, it seems, entrepreneurs young and old are taking chances on new ideas and opening businesses that are successful.
Sidnee Peck, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business, sees it firsthand, day-in and day-out. The Center was created a couple of years ago, she says, with a vision and mission to enable any student at ASU, regardless of their area of interest or major, who wishes to start a business while they’re in school, to do so.
“The entire Phoenix metro area is a ripe place for business entrepreneurship,” Peck says. “What we’re seeing is an extreme groundswell of entrepreneurial activity, support and collaboration—very significantly in the last year, but bubbling up over the past five years or so. ASU is a huge player in the community—so [the Center for Entrepreneurship] is a big part of this.
People in the community embrace us, and we collaborate a lot with community members. There are a lot of aligned incentives. We all want to create great talent—new entrepreneurs who, in turn, can create new businesses and new jobs. We all want to get to the same place.”
Peck believes there’s a trickle-down from ASU leadership, primarily ASU president Michael Crow, who, she says is growing the university in a significant way, one that creates a lot of community partnerships. The more activity that’s occurring around the university, the more beneficial it is to open a business in Tempe.
“We’re a relatively young place, and we’re just coming into our own, like a lot of other young, similarly entrepreneurial cities that are finding their way. Technology has made it easier to start a business. A lot of things that were cost-prohibitive for people before, aren’t anymore,” she says. “It’s a really cool place to be right now.”
Story by Bruce Farr
Photos by Mark Lipczynski, Awe Collective and Arizona State University