Flagstaff, Arizona. With its countless references found in song, folklore and literature, the popular northern Arizona destination has, over generations, become the stuff of American legend.
And no wonder why. The city—picturesquely nestled at the base of the majestic San Francisco Peaks amid deep Ponderosa pine forests and iconic natural canyons—invites the imagination.
Since it was founded in the late 1800s, Flagstaff has had many labels hung on it: farming and logging community, railroad and sheep-ranching town, movie set location, and even that of a center for astronomical exploration. But today, the city has emerged as a new model for easy, healthful living, working and recreation.
Like many Southwestern cities and towns, Flagstaff’s history as a settlement isn’t really that old. “Flag,” as it’s familiarly known to Arizonans, got its start in the mid 1870s as a small farming community founded by a group of hardy New Englanders smitten with the allure of the west.
Attracted by its cool climate, breathtaking scenery and abundant water, these early pioneers wasted no time hewing the plentiful local pine timber to cobble together a handful of buildings on a flat parcel of land that today serves as the city’s epicenter. The new settlers shared the rugged environment with its native inhabitants, members of the Navajo and Hopi tribes, who today remain a part of Flagstaff’s appeal as a center for Native American culture and history.
On ‘America’s highway’
Fast-forward a few decades to the 1920s, when Flagstaff’s history as a traveler’s weigh station was sealed in stone. More by happenstance than design, Flagstaff became one of the key points of interest along the now legendary, 2,500-mile-long strand of U.S. highway called Route 66.
In the early days of the automobile, Route 66 helped several quirky communities along its course to prosper, and Flagstaff was prominent among them. Downtown, which is flanked on one end by Route 66, was built as a network of walkable streets and avenues laid out in a satisfying grid pattern that invites easy, meandering exploration.
From that point forward, what seemed to percolate to Flagstaff’s surface was a bustling sense of manifest American destiny. Downtown embodied that same spirit of “upstart” progress that a handful of other western U.S. towns and cities did in that formative time.
Following on its steady growth through the 20th century, the city continued to evolve and flourish. In addition to its popularity as the nearest major city to the Grand Canyon and other northern attractions in the state, Flagstaff became permanently etched in the American consciousness when, in 1946, the planet Pluto was discovered from nearby Lowell Observatory. The observatory sits on Mars Hill, just west of Flagstaff proper, and has become an important locus for astronomical observation and study.
Solid economic base
Today, while it is still a relatively small city at just under 70,000 residents, Flagstaff has become a great place to park one’s self for days on end to take in the surrounding wonders—its many notable geographic landmarks, its colorful cultural history, and its increasing reputation as a recreational paradise.
One of Flagstaff’s high notes is that it happens to be a very walkable city, its tidy downtown still, in some respects, invitingly reminiscent of a 1950s-vintage American small town. And that, from a small-business perspective, is helping drive Flagstaff’s emergence from the economic downturn of 2008-2011, notes John Lewis, Northern Commercial President of National Bank of Arizona.
“I would say that, recently, our business climate is robust,” Lewis affirms. “There are a lot of really good things happening in the downtown area. Over the years, they’ve really worked to revitalize and make it the place to be in the city, and it’s really made a difference.”
It doesn’t hurt that Flagstaff is home to several large manufacturers and service organizations, Lewis points out, among them the medical equipment and fabric manufacturer, W.L. Gore & Associates, and the pet food giant, Nestlé-Purina. Also near downtown, the sizable campus of Northern Arizona University has long added a distinctly educational/cultural vibe to the city’s identity.
“Northern Arizona Healthcare and all of its ancillary businesses are also important economic contributors,” Lewis notes.
With 5 million visitors to downtown Flagstaff last year, the city’s economy is driven substantially by tourism, much of it lured there by the city’s proximity to the Grand Canyon and the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort.
“That traffic has resulted in a lot of smaller shops and restaurants in the downtown that have tended to thrive off of that tourism,” Lewis says.
One of those bustling businesses is Old Town Shops, a potpourri of restaurants, small boutiques and retail stores all housed in a single building that fronts historic Leroux Street. Old Town Shops’ owner, longtime Flagstaff resident and businessman John VanLandingham, has been a local force in helping revitalize the downtown to make it more attractive to visitors and local residents alike.
“Downtown is unique and remarkable in a lot of different ways,” VanLandingham points out. “With several eclectic retail shops, galleries and restaurants, the business climate is great. There’s a lot of excitement, energy and entrepreneurism. Especially in the last couple of years, [the local retail economy] is accelerating pretty rapidly.”
To accommodate that acceleration, the city’s Flagstaff Pulliam Airport serves one carrier, American Eagle, which has a multiple daily flight schedule to move passengers to and from Phoenix.
John Saltonstall, the business retention and expansion manager for Flagstaff, works with primary sector industries, startups and entrepreneurs, helping them get their businesses off the ground.
“I think the city’s in a phenomenal place right now,” Saltonstall says. “Things are very productive…with a lot of partners who are banded together to help it grow.”
He explains that there are a number of economic projects that have been in the works for a long time that are just coming into fruition.
“But whatever happens, we don’t want to lose the small-town identity and feel we’ve had,” Saltonstall continues. “This is still a very close-knit community and that’s something we want to maintain.”
Saltonstall also says that Flagstaff is fast becoming a “foodie town,” with a number of unique, high-quality independent restaurants opening up downtown. And hinging on the increasing downtown traffic, he notes that another project, a new Marriott hotel, will have a major impact in the city. The four-story, 109-unit hostelry is underway “caddy-corner from City Hall,” Saltonstall says, adding that the city has eight microbreweries linked via a tour called the Ale Trail that’s proving enormously popular with the hops-oriented crowd.
“As you can tell, there are a lot of things that kind of run the spectrum of progress…there’s a lot going on here,” he says.
Story by Bruce Farr
Photo by Lipczynski