Gilbert looks to become ‘City of the Future,’ ward off decline that troubles many U.S. municipalities

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As Gilbert prepares to mark its centennial in 2020, officials have started to redirect their focus beyond the next few years to several decades ahead.

These efforts, dubbed “City of the Future,” are an acknowledgment that while Gilbert earns a steady stream of recognition in various quality-of-life rankings, historical examination of the life cycle of other municipalities shows Gilbert officials will have to work to keep the town’s status.

What the town aims to do is break the typical life cycle of a city and find a way to maintain prosperity as the population and infrastructure age. Without an effort to combat the elements of an aging town, Gilbert could find itself in a cycle of decline that it cannot break, like some older Midwestern cities or the Maryvale area of Phoenix.

“We don’t wait for a crisis to make change, and unfortunately I think you see that in a lot of governments,” Mayor Jenn Daniels said.

Town officials have settled on three areas of focus to keep the town vibrant. Those areas are a strong economy, a prosperous community and an exceptional built environment.

For each category, officials will collect data to help make decisions on what needs addressing before it becomes a crisis. The town is also working with an Arizona State University program to identify and stay ahead of potential problems.

Any timeline on the city sustainment effort is open-ended.

“We’ve come to understand that there’s no crossing the finish line on this,” Town Manager Patrick Banger said. “The effort of keeping [the town]sustainable as a finish line, you never cross it.”

Officials’ concerns

Upon Daniels’ election as mayor in 2016, Banger said he and Daniels had a sobering talk about the town’s future.

“It’s a vibrant, prosperous community right now,” Banger said. “[Daniels] said, ‘So we’re on top right now. The only place to go is down.’ From my perspective, that’s what got me thinking about we need to be more holistic in our approach to this.”

Banger studied other cities that had suffered steep declines. Zanesville, Ohio, is one example he uses often. Another is just across the Valley in the master-planned community of Maryvale in west Phoenix.

“Most of them are in a state of extreme distress, where they know and it’s obvious they have problems on multiple fronts,” Banger said. “This is not who we used to be. How do we get back to that? Zanesville … [does not]have a workforce to pull from to bring in employment, to provide those revenue streams for families in the community to begin to turn the schools around, their city around. It’s a huge issue.”

Jonathan Koppell, dean of the Watts School of Public Service & Community Solutions at Arizona State University, said many communities are like Zanesville across the country.

“They went through boom years, and all of a sudden the music stopped, and no one was ready for what happened next,” Koppell said.

That is the city life cycle Gilbert hopes to avoid. The town’s demographics skew young now with a large population of school-age children, but the town can see a time just past build-out in about 2030 where most of the children will have moved away and their retired parents will not contribute to the work force anymore.

“Communities that have sustained prosperity over multiple years and multiple generations are always the ones that looked ahead and thought about the path they will follow,” Koppell said.

That sums up why Daniels wants the town to act now with some urgency where none otherwise might be felt.

“The goal is how can we really make a difference in Gilbert by decisions we make today that will impact what happens in Gilbert 20 years from now,” Daniels said. “Historically, I think leaders maybe have underestimated that process or those decisions. … The reality is if you’re building a sure foundation for the future success of your community, you aren’t going to be subject to the cyclical rises and falls of a city.”

Planning for the future

Daniels and Banger said they have to come realize that there is no silver bullet to “future-proof” Gilbert. It is more about a million things done “right in the right order and with the right perspective,” Daniels said.

With such a broad mission and not knowing what the future may hold, staff carved out the three core areas of importance.

A strong economy is based on having an attractive, educated job force and conditions that are attractive to businesses locating in Gilbert. A prosperous community speaks to the quality of life in town. The exceptional built environment is about keeping aging infrastructure up to date, integrating useful technology and maintaining general environmental health.

Banger said he wants to build a culture of innovation in approaching the focus areas. He also wants the town to be willing to pivot quickly if the town’s plans do not work.

“Part of what we’re doing here is we are building some agility into our design to be able to take advantage of future opportunities, and that’s the deliberate planning,” Daniels said. “That’s the thoughtful stakeholders coming together for everybody to add their voice to this conversation about building the city of the future.”

Next steps

Banger said the town has about 200 metrics it will monitor, using some for analysis that will help drive decisions.

But Daniels said the town will go beyond collecting data, too.

“We make data-driven decisions in the town of Gilbert, but we add the human connection element, and that ultimately I think is what makes the difference,” Daniels said. “Listening and engaging with our residents is going to help us really know how we’re doing.”

Daniels used the schools as an example. Stakeholders from the public, charter and private schools meet in a group the mayor has assembled called Advancing Education in Gilbert to discuss issues that affect making sure children have access to quality education across the town.

Daniels said she is looking to make certain everyone who needs to be is at the table for discussions.

“Some are already involved, and we’re going to help sharpen that focus around this effort around what we’ll need from schools, from health care providers, our nonprofits, our faith-based communities, our HOAs, our homeowners,” Banger said.

Support from ASU

Gilbert officials also plan to consult outside experts, including ASU’s Watts School, with which the town has already been working.

The school was recently given the Watts name after a $30 million donation that included a stipulation that some of it be used to look at how to reinvigorate Maryvale specifically, but also other communities. Gilbert will be part of that.

“Our basic approach is to see how they might have better results as a society if we try to think about neighborhoods and communities more holistically than we typically do,” ASU’s Koppell said.

For example, the approach on improving educational outcomes might look not just at academic programs, but at parents who work multiple jobs, hunger issues and safety issues ranging from crime to traffic creating dangerous streets.

However, Koppell acknowledged that what people think about in distressed Maryvale is different from what they think about in prosperous Gilbert.

“It offers Gilbert the opportunity to get ahead of things,” he said. “Instead of waiting [until]it’s a problem, they’re ahead of the game. We’re excited that they asked us to think it through with them.”

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Tom Blodgett
Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent 30 years in journalism in Arizona and is the editor of the Gilbert edition of Community Impact Newspaper. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he now serves as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.
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