Guided by a top-notch development plan, Mesa is more dynamic than ever
For a long time, Mesa’s identity—its “brand,” if you will—was tied to its antiquity. Steeped in the city’s deeply rooted connection to the Native American tribes that occupied the area for many centuries, Mesa was primarily regarded for its history. The Hohokam tribe’s ceremonial earth mounds were major tourist destinations, their ancient artifacts the highlight of local museums. Even as the city grew, prospered and diversified, it was still seen as a somewhat sleepy suburb of Phoenix, its larger, more dynamic sister city to the west.
Over the past few decades, however—with some critical strategic planning and the strong leadership to see it through—Mesa is finding its own identity and its own way, developing a singular reputation as a new, modern urban center worthy of every bit of praise it’s received as a great place to live, work and visit.
Water at its roots
Like many thriving Southwestern cities of today, Mesa’s founding hinged, unsurprisingly, on its access to water. In 1878, the first Mesa settlers—Mormon pioneers from St. George, Utah—immediately began work clearing canals that had been engineered and used many centuries earlier by the Hohokam tribe. With the canals flowing once again, Mesa City, as it was then called, was registered as a community, its early boundaries tracing a single square mile from what is now Mesa Drive to Country Club, and University to Broadway. (That one square mile has, over the years, stretched to its current borders, encompassing nearly 139 square miles.)
Even in its earliest annals, Mesa showed itself to be strategic in its plans to grow. One of its original settlers, Dr. A. J. Chandler (who would later go on to found the neighboring city bearing his name) had an idea that, if it were widened, the Mesa Canal had enough flow to accommodate a power plant. Within a few years, that plant was put into operation and, later, it was incorporated into a utility company.
Owned by the City of Mesa, the utility generated enough revenue to provide the city sufficient capital to pave its streets, and build a new hospital, town hall and library. In fact, the utility company continued to deliver a revenue stream to the city well into the 1960s.
From more recent events, it’s apparent the city has never lost its sense of self-determination, the strategic acumen that has always seemed to help it grow as it has from its first census of roughly 300 residents to its current population of more than 1.5 million.
The man, the plan, the city
In the 10 years since he’s been at the helm as Mesa’s economic development director, Bill Jabjiniak has helped usher in some notable changes in the city. That’s especially the case since Mesa has been focusing on what’s known as its “industries of opportunity,” a catchphrase for an emphasis on the city’s stake in advancing healthcare, education, aerospace and tourism—or HEAT, for short.
According to Jabjiniak, the city’s planning has been very strategic, and HEAT has proven to be a solid basis for that strategy, with a few refinements as the “wins” began to accumulate.
“With some of the successes the city has had as it’s pursued its HEAT strategy, the target industries have been refined somewhat to accommodate changes we anticipated,” Jabjiniak explains. “For example, with regard to aerospace, is it really the defense side we should be looking at right now, or is it more the commercial aviation side? These more nuanced enhancements are coming into play as we get farther along in our efforts.”
Jabjiniak explains that Mesa has five major employment areas, each with its own strategic planning initiatives: Falcon Field, Gateway Airport, Fiesta Mall, Riverview and downtown.
There are two “constants” that address all of the five city initiatives.
“One is that we continue to invest in infrastructure and, secondly, [our focus on] entitlements. Because time is money, we always have in mind how we can make the process easier on the development community to enable them to make things happen more quickly,” he says.
When asked to outline some of Mesa’s major, ongoing development initiatives, Jabjiniak rattles them off like he’s reciting the alphabet, commenting knowledgeably on each:
“We have a program that is putting fiber conduit in the ground and making fiber available to independent providers, as needed, to ensure they have multiple options around town, especially in select areas where they want to encourage development. It means they don’t have to install it themselves—all they need to do is rent the conduit.”
“This is our investment in street upgrades and new road/byway development. These efforts are ongoing and will continue to be so in the near term. The Streetscape project transitioned Southern Avenue to four lanes—two in each direction—from west of Sycamore to Alma School Road. New street amenities include benches, street and pedestrian lighting, bike racks, colored paving enhancements at various intersections, vibrant monument entry signs, wider sidewalks, epoxy-coated confetti concrete and new landscaping.”
“We’re actually in Phase II of our light rail masterplan. We have had three miles completed now for quite a while, and we’re well on our way to completing the next phase in the next year or so, which will run an additional two miles to the east. That’s really creating a much different dynamic for Main Street, as [the rail line] goes through the heart of downtown and continues eastbound. The light rail provides options for people and creates great transportation opportunities to get all over the Valley.”
Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport
“This project has grown dramatically on the passenger side, and will add to additional development on the south side of the airport. We’re now at around 1.3 million passengers annually. And while we’ve enjoyed this growth on the passenger side, we just had an announcement recently with a developer called SkyBridge. It’s about 350 acres on the south side of the airport that, when completed, will accommodate cargo transfer to Mexico. When that’s in place, you’ll actually be able to clear customs here, and go anywhere in Mexico to transport goods and materials. This will open up several new Mexican markets in addition to Mexico City, a big expansion of that market for us.”
“We’ve been successful in bringing five higher education institutions to downtown Mesa. When we step back and look strategically at the education initiative, Arizona’s been dominated by the big public universities. They bring a lot of value and many other great things. But here in Mesa, we felt offering liberal arts and nonprofit-type institutions as an alternative creates a far different higher education dynamic and fills a need that wasn’t being met. Benedictine University, a Catholic school, is really the star of the show. It’s grown to nearly 500 students in just over five years. Their brand is all over downtown, and I expect they’ll continue to grow as we move our development agenda forward.”
“Jobs in general are up. Our unemployment rate was 3.7 percent as of October. What’s driving our jobs growth is a very pro-business environment right now. Investments we previously made in infrastructure and entitlements have helped create employment corridors within the city. Elliot Road is one, with Apple anchoring that corridor. Another, Niagara Bottling, has created a 450,000-square-foot facility. And several technology companies have purchased property there, as well, and will be starting the first phases of construction in 2018. There’s also a new, 92,000 square-foot hospital at Elliott and Ellsworth roads.
You’re starting to see that level of change, especially as we continue to invest in road infrastructure, and you’ll see that it has more of a sense of place that will feed some of that technology growth, as we continue to brand the area.”
Pecos Advanced Manufacturing Zone
“South of Gateway Airport, along Pecos Road, we’re focused on advanced manufacturing. This will be the next push for us as we continue to diversify the economy.”
“Several years ago, we did a Falcon Field economy activity plan. We wanted to answer the question: How do we diversify from simply aviation? We’re seeing a lot of demand for office and industrial buildings with large square footage on each floor of the building. Currently, we don’t have that type of product, but we’re starting to see those constructed right across from Boeing. We also have three or four projects underway, which will help feed some of the large square footage building demand we’re experiencing.”
Macro to micro
With all of the large-scale development plans Jabjiniak describes as being underway, it begs the question of what their impact has been on the community itself; how have they helped small businesses?
Young Mesa entrepreneurs like Kelsey and Jim Bob Strothers offer evidence of how some new, aspirational businesses are emerging in the wake of the city’s economic development, and how their owners are helping to reshape Mesa’s identity from that of a slower-paced, traditional Southwestern community into a more dynamic, contemporary one.
The Strotherses’ business, a small boutique sandwich shop called Worth Takeaway, began its life a couple of years ago in a 900-square-foot storefront on West Main Street in downtown Mesa. Though it may be tiny, Worth Takeaway is just as growth-centric and strategic as the city it inhabits. In fact, with respect to its thoughtful planning, the business can be regarded as a microcosm of Mesa development itself.
“We intentionally chose downtown Mesa to locate our business because it was a part of our strategy to help create a culture within our local community,” Kelsey explains. “Downtown has had a really big need for food and dining establishments with consistent, reliable hours, so, for us, Worth Takeaway has become an ‘agreement’ of sorts with our community, a promise to our customers that they will have a place to go to get something to eat, even if it’s at nine in the evening.”
The Strotherses didn’t anticipate the level of success they’ve achieved in just two short years.
“It’s been a joy for us to exceed our own expectations and grow our business to provide jobs for the members of our Worth Takeaway team, which now numbers 10,” Kelsey says with pride. “Our goal now is to seek out a larger space where we can do more, and continue to help with the revitalization efforts of downtown.”
As in many communities across the country, the Strotherses strongly believe a key to their success lies in partnering with other local businesses, creating symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationships that are focused on buying and promoting local products and services.
“We’re early adopters of this spirit of change that’s underway,” she says. “There’s a new wave of businesses coming into being in Mesa—places like Oro Brewing Company and Cider Corps, The Zona Market and even Design Lab. These and other new startups in Mesa have come in with a breath of fresh air and a new energy. We’re hopefully finding the ability to keep pushing through, even though we’re not ‘out of the woods’ just yet.”
Kelsey adds that there’s an understanding among all of these business owners that they all want what’s best for Mesa—that they’re all in the same club.
“It’s exciting and rewarding because we’re at the start of something that’s been in the works for a long time,” she continues. “I do believe we’re on the front end of that effort; that we’re beginning to find the right energy to help us—and Mesa—accomplish its goals for the future.”
Story by Bruce Farr
Photography by Mark Lipczynski