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Southeast Valley leaders brainstorm a better future

by Gary Nelson - Jun. 20, 2011 10:54 AM
The Arizona Republic

The Southeast Valley's emerging consciousness of its collective self took another step forward this week as five city leaders pledged further cooperation with one another and with the region's catalytic educational institutions.

"The success for all of us is all of us working together," Gilbert Mayor John Lewis told an audience of business people, city officials and educators Tuesday at Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus.

The forum, under the theme "Inspiring Innovation," gave Poly a chance to showcase its hands-on technical programs, which send students into the business world armed with practical experience.

Mitzi Montoya, who became vice provost and dean of Poly's College of Technology and Innovation earlier this year, said the campus and others in the East Valley will help drive the innovation needed to keep the region afloat economically.

"Innovation does matter," she said. "Or to put it more directly: Innovate or abdicate."

As the pace of change in the world accelerates, Montoya said, innovation becomes more and more a matter of collaborating across multiple academic disciplines and among institutions including government, business and academia.

And, she said, the burgeoning campus area just west of Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport is poised to lead the region in that direction. The campus "might be one-of-a-kind in the country," she said, with Poly sitting next door to Chandler-Gilbert Community College and, soon, the East Valley Institute of Technology.

Four mayors - Lewis, Hugh Hallman of Tempe, Scott Smith of Mesa and Gail Barney of Queen Creek - and Chandler City Councilman Jack Sellers then picked up the theme.

"Higher education is absolutely one of the most critical aspects of economic development," Sellers said. "The companies that we attract into our city, one of the very first things they look for is what kind of workforce do you have and what kind of a partnership do you have with the educational facilities."

Most companies care little about city boundaries, the panel said. They simply seek places where they can prosper.

"Mesa's future is not determined by Mesa's borders," Smith said. And Lewis said it was mostly coincidental that Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center is opening in north Gilbert, noting that the facility simply wanted to locate near the Southeast Valley's geographic heart.

Hallman noted that the region's awareness of its interdependence took a huge leap forward five years ago in the same room where Wednesday's event was held. That's was when the Urban Land Institute said the Gateway area was likely to become a huge economic driver in coming decades.

"That brought everybody together and changed the dynamic, changed the game so that people understood, especially at the elected level, collaboration is essential," he said.

But Hallman noted several threats to all the good intentions.

First, he said, the Legislature has cut university funding.

"When we seek to do collaborations with universities frequently we're met with 'yes, we have that capacity but we now are a profit center and here's what you've got to pay for it,' " he said.

Second, he said, the competitive spirit among area cities may not be completely dead.

"We've all got our separate interests, and we can say that we're all going to work together," he said. "And then we're advantaged by cheating."

For example, he noted battles among cities a few years ago to attract retail developments with tax incentives. Individual cities might have benefited but the region didn't.

Hallman also warned that as the economy recovers, pressure will increase to let housing encroach on areas planned for businesses.

"There's a lot of incentive to do that," he said, "because it's now and it's easier."

One such proposal surfaced recently when developers asked Mesa to allow homes just north of the new First Solar plant, although the council reacted coldly to the idea.

"We can all succeed very well independently," Smith said. "There's no doubt about that. Each community has grown and done a pretty good job. The question is: Do we want to succeed at this level?"

The option, he said, would be to work for something better.

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