Amid city challenges, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith’s stature grows
The Mesa that Scott Smith views from the expanse of windows in his seventh-floor downtown office is not the same one that existed when he moved in five years ago.
The town has been through a lot. City Hall itself was battered by an epic budget crisis that blew some departments to smithereens, cost hundreds of public jobs and yet sparked creative surges that led to new ways of delivering government services.
Out on the streets, a tsunami of foreclosures drove some neighborhoods to their knees. Unemployment soared. Bitter debates over immigration poisoned the well of public amity.
For a time, it appears, Mesa stopped growing altogether and may even have lost population during the worst economic downturn since President Herbert Hoover.
Yet for all that, if the mayor’s windows could offer 360-degree views, they would reveal stunning transformations from one end of the sprawling city to the other.
In the southeast, a growing passenger airport surrounded by boundless square miles ripe for development, some of which has begun.
In the northwest, a new Chicago Cubs complex and city park to open late this year as one of the top tourist draws in the Valley.
In the heart of the city, light-rail construction accompanied by three new housing projects and the arrival of several branch campuses of old-line Eastern and Midwestern liberal-arts colleges.
In all parts of town, park projects either planned or ongoing as a result of a citizen-led community brainstorming effort, as well as other new infrastructure running into the tens of millions of dollars.
All that, as they say in the commercials, and more. And along the way Smith rose from rookie mayor of an obscure desert city to the presidency of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, giving him a national voice on urban issues.
Smith cannot, and will not, claim to be the sole catalyst for the change that has rolled across Mesa this past half-decade. But he has been in the thick of it, and gave the Mesa Republic an hourlong interview focusing on his five years in office and Mesa’s next round of challenges.
Smith, 57, is not shy in describing his tenure as a mission largely accomplished.
“When I first came into office five years ago, these things were just, some of them, dreams,” Smith said. “Some of them hadn’t been thought of yet, and some of them we thought would never happen. And now they’re either here or they’re very soon to be here, and it’s an interesting feeling.”
The steady drumbeat of big headlines over those years was no accident, Smith said. “I didn’t run to do small things.”
One of his big aims from the outset was to overhaul City Hall — a process that was vastly accelerated by the recession-sparked budget crisis.
Painful as it was to slice about 350 jobs from Mesa’s payroll, Smith said, “I knew we were creative enough and our staff was good enough that we could handle it.”
The toughest nut — and one that to Smith stood as the symbol of his success or failure in boosting Mesa’s sagging civic ego — was the Cubs.
At one point, Smith said: “The Cubs were gone. They made it very clear. This was not a negotiating ploy.”
It was doubly difficult, he said, because “with the Cubs we were dealing with powers and forces beyond our control.”
Some of those were in Florida, where deep-pocketed investors offered the Cubs a new spring-training home and business opportunities. Some were in Chicago, where new owners with no historical ties to Mesa wanted to remake the team in their own image.
And some were in the state Legislature, where a tax plan to keep the Cubs in Arizona was bludgeoned to death in the spring of 2010, with boatloads of vitriol aimed in Mesa’s direction.
Finally, Mesa came up with an alternate financing plan, which city voters approved that fall by 64 percent. The stadium is now racing toward completion.
“That psychological win, that economic win and that political win, I think, sort of set the stage for a lot of good things,” Smith said.
The trick going forward, he said, is to sustain Mesa’s momentum.
“We’re not as successful as we think we are,” he said. “We’re still not out of the woods financially. … I think that’s going to continue to be one of our big challenges.”
And, he said, the mere opening of downtown college campuses and construction of light rail does not guarantee success there, either.
“Right now is when we really have to start working hard, planning for the opening of light rail,” he said. “We’re about two years away. … Now is the time to be talking to developers” about revitalizing properties along the tracks.
One of the biggest decisions, he said, will be the fate of property occupied for decades by Brown & Brown Chevrolet. Auto Nation, which now owns the dealership, is well along in planning to move the operation to south Gilbert, leaving a 10-acre scar adjacent to light rail in the heart of downtown.
Mesa also must keep its eye on the Gateway area, Smith said. Major development there is only now kicking in, and city leaders must press for quality projects that will lead to the 100,000 high-wage jobs that some planners have said are possible in that part of the city.
Smith, who cruised unopposed to re-election in 2012, has about 40 months remaining in his term as mayor. Whether he serves all that is a matter of statewide speculation; he has been widely mentioned as a potential candidate for governor in 2014.
Whatever he decides, he aims to continue working across the region and across the political divide to address not just Mesa but Arizona issues.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the whole tenor in Washington and in Phoenix is a lot more partisan and a lot more ideological than it has been,” Smith said. “I don’t think that’s good for the state or the country. We do best when we talk about how to make things better, not about who’s right or who’s wrong.”