Mesa had long been viewed as dull and stuck in the past when, four years ago, a mayoral candidate with no political experience and a generic name made the improbable claim he was the best man to change the city’s image.
Perhaps it was appropriate that he was a former home builder who adopted the mantra of “building a better Mesa.”
Voters put their faith in newcomer Scott Smith, who defeated two better-known council members to lead Arizona’s third-largest city. The unproven Smith took office in May 2008 as the recession was destroying the city’s finances and the already shredded optimism for Mesa’s future.
Rather than focus on the painful cuts the city had to make, Smith insisted on talking about the “better Mesa” and aggressively pursuing economic development.
His approach and energy quickly transformed Smith into one the East Valley’s most prominent political leaders and it’s even placed him on the national stage. He’s been interviewed by national print and electronic media for stories on surviving the economy and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. Political junkies have said he’d be a strong candidate for Congress or governor.
Smith, 56, said his better-Mesa message came from residents of the community he moved to at age 11. Citizens wanted to hear about the city’s potential and to outgrow a complacency that set in, he said.
“I really believe that a mayor could help remind people of what their community could become,” he said. “Mesa citizens have always believed their community was great. They just needed somebody to remind them and give themselves a bit of a nudge and show some confidence in the community.”
Smith said his business experience helped him overcome fear that gripped the county during the recession’s darkest hours.
He’s been through three economic downturns and reinvented himself during one of them. At 37, he went to law school and gave up the accounting profession as his family risked losing their home. He eventually ran two home building businesses but got out well before the real estate market crashed.
Smith said he felt a sense of urgency when he took office but also knew the city had to adapt to new economic realities. Mesa was one of the first Valley cities to slash spending and staff, which caused it to avoid the kind of deep cuts that many other cities had to make year after year.
The city also prevented a major loss as Florida tried to lure the Chicago Cubs in 2009 to leave the team’s longtime spring training home. Smith was a top cheerleader in convincing voters to approve a $99 million deal to build a new Cubs complex.
The mayor also fought for the First Solar manufacturing plant under construction in east Mesa and securing the Feb. 22 Republican presidential primary debate at the Mesa Arts Center.
He also launched iMesa, an initiative to have residents identify small and large projects that would transform the community. The program has generated buzz, but the major ideas will take years and as-of-yet unidentified funds to get off the ground.
There have been disappointments. The First Solar plant won’t immediately begin making panels because of a glut in the industry. A proposed 1,200-room Gaylord resort has been on hold for four years. Smith said one of his biggest disappointments is not being able to get the owner of the closed Fiesta Village shopping center to maintain the prominent property.
Smith said he and City Manager Chris Brady made more than one visit to owner W.M. Grace Development Co. to work out improvements or redevelopment.
“There’s not many people who get the mayor and the city manager to come to their place of business to work out something that makes something a success, and then (they) basically tell them to get lost,” Smith said.
Apple Inc. had considered locating 3,600 employees in the city but instead chose Austin, Texas.
Smith said he considers the Apple decision to be a success of sorts, because he couldn’t imagine Mesa would have been on the tech giant’s list a few years ago.
The mayor said the city’s improving image is partly due to its elected officials avoiding the wrong battles that they’d been known to wage in the past. He cites longtime opposition to closing down Main Street for downtown events as stunting growth for years. Now Smith, a Mormon, enthusiastically promotes a planned microbrewery and beer gardens at downtown events.
Smith keeps a high profile and is a prolific public speaker.
But Smith’s oratory skills have a downside, Vice Mayor Scott Somers said.
“If you don’t call him on it, he will dominate the conversation. I think a lot of leaders have that same problem, and he does know it,” Somers said. “While it can be distracting from time to time and frustrating frequently, I don’t feel it’s a problem.”
Somers said Smith deserves credit for changing the conversation people have about Mesa and planning for future successes. Smith could easily use the mayor’s profile to seek higher office, which Somers thought was likely.
“I think he’s got a wonderful future in whatever he decides to do. I don’t think he took this job to build a better resume. He really did take this job to build a better Mesa,” Somers said. “I think others have higher political aspirations for him. Whether he holds those for himself, I’m not entirely sure.”
Smith said he never seriously considered a run for Congress this fall and is focusing on getting re-elected to a second term this year. So far, he’s the only candidate.
Smith’s profile is likely to grow if re-elected as various projects come to fruition. The Cubs complex is slated to open in 2014, Metro light rail will reach downtown in 2015 and various smaller economic initiatives are playing out as well.
Also, Smith is scheduled to become the president in 2013 of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He’ll be the first Arizonan to hold that post. Already, his involvement in the organization has resulted in several trips to meet President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. His calls for infrastructure investment made him one of three mayors who in January were named persons of the week on “World News with Diane Sawyer.”
Smith said he’s modeled political skills after former mayors like Scottsdale’s Herb Drinkwater, Tempe’s Harry Mitchell and Mesa’s Wayne Pomeroy. A business mentor is Herb Kelleher, former Southwest Airlines CEO. Smith hasn’t met Kelleher but sees parallels with Mesa in how the airline had historically been mocked because it wasn’t as fancy as its competitors.
“He wouldn’t apologize for what Southwest was. He just made them the best airline in the world and the most profitable by focusing in what they were and celebrating what they were and doing it better than anybody else,” Smith said. “And that’s Mesa. There are a lot of people who ignore Mesa or even belittle Mesa, and I think we have shown them they’re sorely mistaken. We are a great community, and we won’t apologize for who we are.”
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