Gilbert economic forum emphasizes good times on the horizon - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Voices

Gilbert economic forum emphasizes good times on the horizon

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

Posted: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 3:21 pm

The tone was upbeat. Confident. Focused. It was inspired and inspiring.

Make no mistake about it: A scent that Arizona is on the mend was in the air.

The occasion was an economic development forum hosted by Mayor John Lewis and the town of Gilbert on Tuesday morning.

The Gilbert Ambassador Forum’s purpose was to brief members of the community on economic development goings-on and encourage them to be ambassadors for their community.

No, the good times haven’t returned but they’ve been spotted on the horizon.

Banner Health is working with the town on plans for the second phase of the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center — a phase that will see 480,000 square feet added to the Banner Gateway Medical Center campus.

Celebration Stem Cell Centre is connecting to nearby Mercy Gilbert Medical Center by way of Dr. Nabil Dib, who is the hospital’s director of cardiovascular research and author of a book on stem cell therapy and tissue engineering.

And town leaders have their fingers crossed that one of Gilbert’s four prospective sites will win out when the Veteran’s Administration picks a new site for its Southeast Veterans Affairs Health Care Clinic. (Town leaders told forum attendees that a couple of major economic development announcements are imminent.)

No wonder that the town of Gilbert’s economic development department led by Dan Henderson has developed a five-year strategy plan centered on biomedical-life sciences.

But there’s more. New companies like Unicon, which offers IT services for educational institutions and employs 100 in Gilbert, are appearing on the radar.

As reported in my previous column, Orbital Sciences satellite assembly and testing facility in Gilbert will be ramping up operations to assemble and test 81 satellites as Iridium Communications Inc. launches its next generation of communications satellites from 2015-2017.

“With this contract, Orbital becomes part of the most significant commercial space project in the world,” Iridium Communications Corp. CEO Matt Desch said.

And in my mind that makes the town of Gilbert part of the most significant commercial space project in the world.

There’s more. Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport that brushes the eastern edge of Gilbert and is partly owned by the town is experiencing record passenger growth.

In March, 167,000 passengers came through Gateway, Lewis said, linking passenger growth with the East Valley and the town’s improving economy.

And the town that prior to the Great Recession was among the fastest growing cities in America is growing again.

Lewis said the town issued 27 percent of the entire Valley’s new single-family home permits. The town is issuing more permits than our valley’s core city.

With those rumblings in mind, economic development chief Henderson told ambassador recruits, “Gilbert will establish itself as a destination-of-choice to firms in the biomedical and life sciences industry in support of an overall economic development objective of becoming a net importer of science and technology jobs in 20 years.

“Gilbert will become a high-tech employment center for its residents and attract workers from across the metropolitan area.”

What if that was to happen? What if the Valley’s biggest bedroom community became a place where more people came to work in the morning than headed to Chandler or Phoenix or Tempe to work? Wouldn’t that be something?

If the forum needed a reason to be more sanguine, economist Jim Rounds offered it up through an assessment of the state’s economy.

OK, so the recovery is not going to happen overnight. But the charts that economists pore over look good to Rounds.

“You will feel much more like a recovery in Fiscal Year 2013,” he said.

He sees hard-hit Arizona as “back to normal” in 2015-16.

In the second half of the decade, Rounds said, “We’re going to look really good.”

Yeah, I know 2015 is three years away, but after what we’ve been through, that’s not so bad.

Rounds is a native Arizonan and senior economist for Elliott D. Pollack & Company. He told us he doesn’t wear rose-colored glasses, and I believe him.

I pulled up my notes from an interview I had with Rounds in early 2010 in connection with a study he had done for then Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams on economic development.

If you remember in those days we were getting over our dazed and confused phase when we were walloped by the recession. We were regrouping and trying to focus on what to do next.

“We are very much behind the curve in thinking about economic development,” he had told me in 2010.

But his tone on Tuesday had changed, reflecting the general tone of the entire event.

He paid a compliment and urged the town to stay the course.

“I’ve been very impressed with the staff. Keep on doing what you are doing,” he said.

My career has put me around a good number of cynical politicians and journalists; so sometimes Mayor Lewis’s cheerleading strikes me as a tad corny.

But I’m going to close this column with the story he closed the forum with because it touched me.

Six weeks or so ago, Lewis hosted an illuminating East Valley Health Care Summit.

The keynote speaker was Dr. Ronald DePinho, CEO of MD Anderson, who had come from Houston at Lewis’s request.

DePinho talked about his decision to leave the Harvard Medical School and take the top job at MD Anderson not for the money or the prestige but because cancer had caused a death in his own family and he thought he could make a difference.

He approached his job as a mission.

“The world is counting on us,” he said.

And the “us” didn’t refer solely to researchers and scientists and doctors, but to the places that nest and encourage them.

“We’re counting on communities like you to move the needle,” he said.

And so Lewis repeated, “The world is counting on us.”

When you think about what you do as more than just about the almighty buck, it can’t help but make you feel more significant.

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