Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, right, with federal officials at the new Able Engineering facility, announcing an Obama administration initiative to boost manufacturing.
Mesa has landed an Apple factory and 2,000 jobs (provided the Gilbert school board goes along with the tax incentives), the latest in a series of triumphs as Phoenix falls into eclipse and the big issues are "pension spiking" and the "food tax."
Is "the city of wide streets and narrow minds" finally starting to punch at its weight?
Unlike most of the "boombergs" that have encircled Phoenix despite the aggressive annexation intended to prevent just that, Mesa always had a special identity. Settled by Mormons, Mesa had a distinctive set of small-businesses and agriculture-based industries and was surrounded by miles of citrus groves.
This began to change in the 1970s when the Superstition Freeway, as it built east, killed Main Street shops. Worse, the city inflicted a series of wounds on itself even as it notched huge population growth.
It allowed the city's tallest tower to be built outside downtown, along with the Maricopa County Courts buildings and other important assets. It allowed its lovely former Southern Pacific depot, which would have made a great multi-modal station today, to burn down.
What was lost: Mesa's Southern Pacific depot downtown.
Instead of balancing industrial land use with residential, Mesa plowed under the groves for subdivisions. By the 2000s, most Mesans had to commute outside the city limits for work.
Mesa very nearly was left out of the starter line of light rail (WBIYB), but then-Mayor Keno Hawker persuaded a reluctant City Council to help fund one mile from Tempe into Mesa. The Mesa Arts Center was completed in 2005 in an effort to undo some of the damage to downtown, but it struggled.
By 2010, Mesa's population was more than 439,000. It was more populous than Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Minneapolis but had none of those cities corporate or cultural assets — or great bones. The municipal building, an ugly office on Main, seemed to exemplify its lack of ambition.
That has changed under Mayor Scott Smith, the most effective and interesting public official in Arizona today.
Smith led the recruitment of five liberal arts colleges, four of which will be located downtown near light rail — which the city is extending through downtown.
Smith also presided over the creation of a Mesa-centric economic-development strategy rather than relying on the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. This includes the HEAT initiative – Healthcare, Education, Aerospace, Tourism and Technology — as well as StartUpMesa.
Mesa has retained the Boeing helicopter factory and also has taken over the former military laboratory at Falcon Field.
In addition, while Phoenix was losing baseball Spring Training, Mesa sprang for a new Cubs stadium. This is an important leg of tourism, but, importantly, Smith is not trying to make Mesa "the next Scottsdale," which seems the only aspiration other Arizona municipalities can manage.
Smith's impeccable LDS background — he's a BYU graduate — helps. Even though most Mormons with means have relocated to Gilbert and Chandler, the Saints still exert great power in the city and through a close-knit East Valley business community. He's a Republican, but he's not a Kook.
He's also had help thanks to the Real Estate Industrial Complex's lust for the former GM proving ground land. Thus, DMB is building the ambitious Eastmark development and has been a reliable partner in economic development.
Smith is also a regional leader. He doesn't hate the name Phoenix for the region, but embraces it.
So effective has Mesa become that my sources tell me Phoenix Symphony President Jim Ward seriously considered moving the orchestra from Symphony Hall in downtown Phoenix to the Mesa Arts Center.
Downtown Mesa will also be the home of the $30 million Barry and Peggy Goldwater Library and Archives. Some of you might say, "Good riddance, Barry gave birth to the extremism centered in the East Valley."
No, this is an astounding blunder by Phoenix leaders, if they exist. Goldwater went to Kenilworth School just north of downtown Phoenix, managed the downtown Phoenix Goldwater's department store and was a Phoenix City Councilman. The library and archives of the most prominent Phoenician in history will be in...Mesa.
To be sure, Mesa faces serious problems. Much of its older construction — including miles of east Main Street — is facing the same linear slum problem that has hobbled Phoenix.
Most of its assets, including Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport and ASU Polytechnic, are spread far from each other and almost all are totally car-dependent. The "city," at 136 square miles, is mostly a collection of "master planned communities," a suburban form that works against creating a cohesive, connected city.
Although the city is more Hispanic than in the past, it was more than 77 percent white in 2010, hardly the diversity associated with a competitive city in the global economy. Only 23.5 percent of the population over the age of 25 had a bachelor's degree or higher, below the state average (in Seattle, it's nearly 56 percent). Median household income was below the state's dismal average.
Little of the city is walkable and quality urbanism is a high hurdle. I'm not sure Mesa leaders are even thinking about this as they risk being bedazzled by DMB's bulldozers. But real cities are attracting the most talented young people, as well as many empty nest baby boomers.
Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport (note the smart naming) will likely not become another Ontario Airport (which is now struggling, too). Sky Harbor beats it on low costs and the already sunken-cost investments of the major carriers. But who knows? There is much whistling past the graveyard about the potential negative consequences to PHX from the USAirways-American merger.
One test for Mesa will be if it can expand the pie of quality assets for the Phoenix metropolitan area rather than merely poaching from the city of Phoenix. Another will be if it can control the lust of the Real Estate Industrial Complex for the vast so-called Superstition Vistas land.
This latter isn't just a huge mistake for sustainability, but risks keeping the economy dependent on schlock tract housing.
Mesa has a chance to do great things. At the least, it can assume its place as capital of an East Valley where most of the metro's wealth and economic power has shifted. It can be a partner for regional progress, for example in pushing for commuter rail.
But Mesa can and should do more, acting like a real city.
It would be nice if it could build a real city hall, especially one with retro grace and inspiration rather than another ghastly sculpture by a starchitect.
Let Phoenix beware. Mayor Greg Stanton can be a nice guy all he wants — and he faces a dysfunctional Council — but the big city is in noticeable decline. It's not just failing against its peer competitors, such as San Diego, Austin, Denver and Seattle. It is failing against its own suburbs. "Better call Sal" to demagogue about "protecting the taxpayers" is not an economic or civic strategy.
In the news is the Atlanta Braves abandoning Turner Field, a relatively new and very nice stadium near downtown, in favor of suburban Cobb County. Several arts organizations are also leaving the "chocolate city" (which is actually smaller in population than Mesa) for whiter suburbs.
In self-segregating America, this should be yet another warning sign for the city of Phoenix. Without Jerry Colangelo, the Suns arena and Diamondbacks stadium would not be downtown. If the East Valley had its act together in the 2000s, Glendale would not have been able to essentially mortgage its future to get the taxpayer-funded football stadium and hockey arena.
Phoenix has little time to turn itself around or it will become the Mexican Detroit that north Snottsdale toffs have long been predicting, only with fewer cool buildings downtown. It certainly lacks the corporate and higher education assets that the city of Atlanta has, Braves or no. This should be an emergency of the first order, but I'm not sure elected officials in Phoenix even get it. Gotta supervise filling potholes, ya know.
In the meantime, Mesa deserves credit. And if only more Arizona Republicans could be like Scott Smith.