Article originally posted on AZ Big Media on March 19, 2018.
In 1920, Gilbert was largely recognized as a farming community, toting the slogan, “hay capital of the world.” In the same era, agriculture reigned supreme in Chandler, yielding cotton, grains, alfalfa and the raising of cattle, sheep and ostriches. Until the 1960s, 50 percent of Mesa’s residents claimed earnings as farmers. Like many communities, the PHX East Valley has (not surprisingly) transformed exponentially.
What was once a region made up of sleepy suburbs that relied on agriculture as its economic backbone has transformed itself into a cutting-edge region that has become an innovative leader in autonomous vehicle testing, aviation and aerospace, education, financial services and fintech, healthcare, technology and semiconductor manufacturing, tourism and agritainment.
Experts unanimously agree that the attribution for transformation and growth is undoubtedly due to the overwhelming spirit of collaboration, leadership and ingenuity that has and continues to pave the way for innovation, expansion and maturation within the East Valley.
Not so sleepy communities
Although the PHX East Valley has sprouted from humble beginnings, the seed of innovation has always been present. Think back to the establishment of Arizona State University in 1885 and jumping forward to the aerospace companies that started to pop up in the 1950s.
“In the 1970s, Chandler had a clear vision of where it wanted to go,” says City of Chandler Economic Development Director Micah Miranda. “A high percentage of the workforce was already in the tech space – Rogers Corporation, Microchip Technology, Intel and Motorola.”
Of course, technology and manufacturing are simply one caveat of modernization. In addition to the arrival of aerospace businesses in Mesa, the entire PHX East Valley has become home to innovative companies like Boeing, Orbital ATK, KinetX Aerospace, Qwaltec and more, collectively contributing to Arizona’s No. 1 spot in aerospace manufacturing, which the state earned in 2016.
Of course, the presence of both small and large aerospace companies translates into more than simply modernization, it means more opportunity to entice high-wage earners.
“These companies bring in 400-plus jobs that require advanced degrees in science and engineering,” explains City of Gilbert Economic Development Director Dan Henderson.
Another example of early footing in innovation and progress – the now Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.
“Once the City of Mesa annexed Williams Air Force base, they worked diligently to redevelop the space into what it is today and the airport continues to expand,” says East Valley Partnership Senior Business Advisor Mike Hutchinson.
The former military base established as a pilot training facility in 1941 is now owned by the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport Authority, which consists of the City of Mesa, City of Phoenix, The Gila River Indian Community, Town of Gilbert, Town of Queen Creek and City of Apache Junction. The airport is currently home to more than 40 companies.
“It was recently announced that SkyBridge Arizona, which will be within Gateway Airport, will be the nation’s first international air cargo hub to house both Mexican and United States customs,” says City of Mesa Economic Development Director Bill Jabjiniak. “As the first of its kind, this innovative service will provide more rapid processing through customs and enable e-commerce companies, manufacturers and other commercial interests conducting business in Mexico and Latin America to more efficiently and cost-effectively transport goods between countries.”
While significant progress continues to be made in technology, aerospace, healthcare, education and infrastructure, it’s important to note the integrity that has been maintained in preserving the PHX East Valley’s origins.
“Despite all the innovation and progress, we’ve been able to keep our sense of community,” says Mark Schnepf, owner of Schnepf Farms and former mayor of Queen Creek. “We’ve grown up, but we haven’t thrown away or lost qualities that we’ve always had. We have a strong agritourism presence that helps to create a conscious link to the past, but in a way that’s relevant to today.”
Smart leadership means smart planning
One thing for which all experts adamantly agree is that the PHX East Valley flourishes largely because of strong and consistent leadership. It’s because of the collaborative efforts of elected officials and city managers with collective vision and experience that the PHX East Valley has been primed to become the center for innovation and expansion that it is.
“Cooperation is absolutely paramount,” says Henderson, “and is clearly evident in the East Valley’s accumulation of a population consisting of 1.5 million people.”
“We do a lot of cooperative things as communities, from devising water and wastewater management solutions, to incorporating public safety systems,” Hutchinson adds. “We have impeccable leadership at the civic, city level in our school districts and entire education systems.”
The entire East Valley education system to which Hutchison refers consists of 14 K-12 school districts, 125 K-12 charter schools, one regional Career Technical Education (CTE) district, five community colleges (with multiple campuses), six private universities (also with multiple campuses) and two state university campuses.
“As a result of having some of the best schools in the country and multiple opportunities for quality education, combined with sound political leadership and fiscal responsibility, the East Valley is poised to attract businesses looking to relocate,” Miranda says.
Education, of course, is simply one aspect of infrastructure that has bloomed in the explosion of innovation, economic prosperity and overall growth of the PHX East Valley.
“Our transportation corridor is a huge attraction,” Hutchinson says.
And it’s also a necessity.“The East Valley is comprised of 74, 500 positive net commuters – people coming into the East Valley for jobs,” Henderson elaborates.
“Although we still have work to do,” Schnepf adds, “we’ve made great strides with the Loop 202 and the new Arizona State Route 24 coming in.”
In addition to civic leadership, the success of a healthy, solid infrastructure can also be attributed to the collaborative efforts of local partnerships.
“The efforts of the East Valley Partnership combined with other organizations like Visit Mesa have helped the East Valley find and perpetuate a common ground,” Schnepf says. “Unlike what can often happen, the East Valley is devoid of the parochialism and competitiveness.”
The future of innovation
Although it remains somewhat of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg,” mystery in terms of PHX East Valley growth in population versus job growth and how they have led to the boom in innovation, regardless of which came first or if they happened simultaneously, businesses and residents continue to be attracted to this region of aggressive growth.
“In the last 15 years, there’s been significant maturing in the East Valley with the build-out of individual communities with higher densities,” Hutchinson says.
By the year 2020, the East Valley is projected to house 1.4 million residents. And for now, the East Valley accommodates 42 percent of the entirety of the Metro-Phoenix workforce.
In addition to the plethora of aerospace manufacturing and technology opportunities with companies like GoDaddy, Apple, Intel, Garmin and Gangplank, the East Valley hosts several other competitive industries.
“Each industry is a cluster,” Miranda says, “semiconductor, biotech, autonomous vehicles. They are all so different, but continue to all be drivers of innovation.”
As the tech industry bolsters new opportunities, turn your attention to financial services.
“Wells Fargo is slated to construct a 200,000-square-foot tenant improvement in Chandler with up to 1,300 full-time jobs,” says Erik Powell, Stevens Leinweber Construction’s director of new construction. Stevens Leinweber Construction is also tasked with construction of the Liberty Mutual tenant improvement – also in Chandler – bringing in an additional 1,000 full-time jobs. “A lot of these jobs are new positions, providing a valuable addition to the local workforce,” Powell says.
Mesa’s Elliot Road Technology Corridor is seeing significant activity as well, according to Jabjiniak.
“EdgeCore Internet Real Estate will soon break ground on a 1.25 million-square-foot, state-of-the-art data center in the Corridor and Niagara Bottling just completed a 450,000-square-foot highly automated manufacturing and bottling facility,” he says.
For entrepreneurs, there is no shortage of opportunity within the PHX East Valley, thanks to the regional partnership of the Phoenix East Valley Angel Investor Initiative.
“The goal of the PHX East Valley Angel Investor Initiative is to fuel tech sector growth by identifying, educating and activating potential angel investors living in the region,” Miranda says. “The critical early-stage funding and support provided by these angel investors will help PHX East Valley startups commercialize new technologies, create quality jobs and grow to become industry leaders.”
No matter what the industry, the PHX East Valley’s affinity for growth, innovation, leadership and fostering communities with integrity is blatantly observable.
“We offer a little bit of everything,” Schnepf says. “From quality job creation and education to improvement in infrastructure and transportation.”
And he adds, in closing, “The East Valley is a great place – whether to raise a family, attract singles or become home for Millennials.”