The once humble farming town evolves into a model for progressive living
What does it take for a dusty, nondescript, 76-square-mile parcel of Arizona desert to, over the decades, transform itself into one of the most desirable, thoughtfully progressive communities in the Southwest?
If the mayor of Gilbert and many of its leading citizens are correct in their assessment, the crucial ingredient is a passionate, highly motivated populace, people who are willing to shake off the status quo and take some chances. And, by any measure, that’s what Gilbert was and is all about.
A town was born
Once hailed as the “Hay Shipping Capital of the World,” Gilbert came to its eponymous appellation in 1902, when local citizen William “Bobby” Gilbert sold a tract of land to make way for the Phoenix and Eastern Railroad Company to build a freight and passenger line that stretched, sinuously, from Phoenix to Kelvin, Arizona.
Newly minted, Gilbert soon became a bustling farming community thanks to the 1903 construction of the Consolidated Canal and later, in 1911, when Roosevelt Dam assured a steady flow of water to the area. Like the histories of so many other Southwestern communities illustrate, with the railroad and a steady supply of water, it wasn’t long before people migrated to Gilbert and a town was born.
Throughout the early 1900s, Gilbert began to take shape, with a post office and grocery store opening their doors, and scores of dairy farmers buying cattle and staking out their acreages. But despite its initial flurry of development, the town settled into a long static period, maintaining a population of slightly more than 1,000 residents for well over 150 years. As far along as 1970, in fact, the population was still under 2,000 people.
Defying the odds
In the 50 years following, however, Gilbert seemed to awaken to its destiny, defying demographics’ pundits who assumed the town would slowly lose its identity and get swallowed up in the Phoenix expansion juggernaut.
Instead, with the help of some chance-taking town government leaders and a handful of local visionaries who saw the community’s potential, Gilbert—whose population now tops 250,000—has carved out its own unique identity as one of the most enviable places to live in Arizona, if not the entire Southwest.
As it’s continued to progress over the past couple of decades, the town has amassed a bundle of accolades. Just consider these few: Gilbert was designated as the fastest-growing municipality in the United States. It was ranked by CNN’s Money magazine as one of the best places to live in the country. It was also named one of the top 25 safest cities in the United States.
So how did it manage such a transformation?
As Gilbert’s current mayor Jenn Daniels suggests, the town’s successful growth is owing in large part to the energy and vitality of its citizens, to their vision and “stick-to-it-tiveness.” Mayor Daniels knows of what she speaks; a longtime resident of Gilbert, she’s been an elected official in town since 2009, and its mayor for the past three years.
“There are a lot of longtime farming families who still live here and have invested in Gilbert for generations now,” the mayor explains. “They once provided for the agricultural needs of the area, but now they’ve converted their efforts and invested themselves into helping the community grow, by, among other things, creating some beautiful housing developments that are so desirable for residents.
“These families care deeply for Gilbert and, clearly, they’re here to stay,” she continues. “They’ve found ways to replicate that hardworking spirit of Gilbert that was the town’s foundation, and they perpetuate that spirit over and over again.”
Town & city
At its current population and growing, Gilbert could easily petition to become a city, but the mayor says that, thus far, it’s not in the cards.
“It’s come up often,” she says, “but our residents love what being a town denotes; it’s a part of our ‘story.’ They love that image, that idea of a small community whose people take care of one another and look out for each other. It has a lot to do with the concepts of nostalgia and identity, and, really, there’s no economic or financial incentive for us to convert to a city. Sometimes, it just makes telling our Gilbert ‘story’ a little more difficult.”
Whether a town or a city, though, all that development over a relatively short period of time can create growing pains. The mayor isn’t afraid to articulate the challenges associated with them. “The biggest challenge to our continued growth is staying ahead of that growth from an infrastructure standpoint,” she explains. “We use a formula that utilizes one-time capital dollars for one-time expenses, and that’s really for the implementation of capital projects—your streets and roads, your sewer and water systems, all these components that you need to stay ahead of growth, and the flow of residents who desire to move here.”
One doesn’t have to search very long or hard to find the personification of Mayor Daniel’s model Gilbertian (if that’s the term)—the type of resident with the passion and perseverance to literally shape what Gilbert has become and help ensure its future. She mentions local entrepreneur Joe Johnston, whom she says serves as a great example of the sort of long-term, visionary resident who time and again has demonstrated the forward-looking vision to see what’s possible in this community.
Residents of the town for more than 50 years, the Johnston family bought a 320-acre farm in Gilbert in 1960 and, throughout the many decades since then, have become trailblazing pioneers for Gilbert’s prosperous, yet thoughtful development into a premier, forward-thinking Southwestern community.
Perhaps Johnston’s hallmark “gift” to the town’s sense of itself is his brainchild commercial/residential real estate development called Agritopia. In 2000, he collaborated with land planners and community developers, landscape architects and the town managers to spearhead the evolution of the family’s vision for their farmland: creating a village neighborhood that harkens back to an earlier, simpler time, and honors the farming traditions of the past.
Joe Johnston describes it as a village built with a sense for what so many Americans yearn to recreate in their lives: a model neighborhood made real and set on the very foundations of the farm where Johnston and his siblings grew up. Johnston’s dream for Agritopia—and, by extension, for Gilbert itself—involved, as Agritopia’s website articulates, “A slower pace. A shared life. A connected existence.”
“All the original farm buildings and structures that were there have been repurposed—modified and upgraded—for the suburban environment,” Johnston notes with pride.
The project wouldn’t have come together so successfully without all the involved parties being able to work together toward a common vision, he continues.
“The government for the town of Gilbert, and even just the general vibe from the townspeople, is that they are pro-business,” he explains. “But the difference in Gilbert is that they are looking for real quality businesses and people who are serious about doing a good job and serious about being a part of the community.”
According to Johnston, another reason Gilbert is such a great place to live and work can be attributed to the town’s economic development department. “The economic development arm of the town is so active and forward-thinking,” he says. “Mayor Jenn [Daniels] and her staff are trying their best to run an efficient government and create a good, barrier-free relationship with businesspeople in the community.”
In 2015, the Johnstons did something else to benefit their town, and help assure its forward-thinking identity. They formed the Johnston Family Foundation for Urban Agriculture in an effort to protect the 11-acre certified organic farm that is at the heart of Agritopia. By extension, the foundation is focused on preserving urban farming in Arizona through production, beauty and education.
“Through the Farm at Agritopia, we are bringing the community together to share our passion for growing, through CSA memberships, events and volunteer programs,” Agritopia’s website says.
A lot of what the Johnstons and other community leaders have accomplished is owing to the way the town is managed and run. “They [the town managers] are not above risk-taking, which is unusual for town government,” he says.
Humorously, Johnston relates an anecdote that appears to ensure that he and his family will continue to dream up ideas and projects for the benefit of Gilbert. In the early days of his entrepreneurship, Johnston’s various business enterprises grew in geographic scope that took him far beyond the confines of Gilbert.
“My wife, Cindy, laid down an edict that I was thereafter restricted to doing things ‘no more than 10 minutes from home,’” he quips. “That has turned out to be a very positive development because I couldn’t think of a better community than Gilbert to be restricted to. It’s been a huge blessing in disguise.”
Story: Bruce Farr
Photos: Mark Lipczynski