While Gilbert might be known for its historic white water tower that looms above the old-fashioned buildings and trendy restaurants in its downtown area, there is far more to it than that small stretch of Gilbert Road.
In recent years, Gilbert has grown immeasurably in the population, number of residential properties and commercial presence in town. However, its growth does not mark the completion of the town; rather it marks a renewed effort to increase quality of life, vivacity of the Heritage District, and attraction of companies.
“We are right now the 89th largest city in the nation out of 18,000 cities and towns,” Gilbert Town Manager Patrick Banger said. “It’s really a community of high growth and I think we will continue to see that for at least the next five to 10 years.”
Banger said the city’s total build-out number, or amount of residential development approved by the town and which is based on current land use and projected figures, is 330,000. By June 30, the town is expected to be at 231,000, and should grow to 236,000 next year.
One possible reason for this is the variety in housing, diverse community, educational opportunities and high quality of life.
“Gilbert has established itself as the premiere residential community within the greater Phoenix region,” Banger said. “We have tremendous quality of life, great schools, great parks we continue to build on, and a reasonable cost of living.”
Fulton Homes has been one of several residential developers building in Gilbert. It has built out the Freeman Farms neighborhood at Greenfield and Ocotillo roads the past four years.
Fulton Homes also started to build a new neighborhood of luxury homes across the street, called Legacy. These homes will be built on half-acre lots and will be some of the largest in the area. A few of the homes will feature six-car garages.
Dennis Webb, vice president of Fulton Homes, said the area is a good fit for the large homes because of the growth and attractions in the area, including SanTan Village and the new Mormon temple.
“The luxury market is coming back really strongly right now,” he said. “We think there’s a large demand for people that want large homes in a gated community in that part of town.”
While residential growth is relatively stable, single-family permits are down from 2004. However, Gilbert continues to lead the region in such permits issued, Banger said.
Gilbert is also experiencing “good growth” in the commercial sector of town, which is an area of focus.
“We are very focused right now especially on commercial growth to make sure we are bringing in high wage employers, the types of industry that will create long-term and sustainable jobs for our population,” Banger said.
Dan Henderson, economic development director for Gilbert, said the town is comprised of four major employment corridors. The first is in the northwest corner of town and is anchored by Orbital Sciences and Lockheed Martin. Another is centered around Banner Gateway Medical Center, and the third is the knowledge and power corridor on south Power Road. The last one encompasses the 202 Freeway from Ray to Gilbert roads.
These four corridors have grown significantly in the last 10 years and many companies have settled there because of the quality of life, school system and location within the East Valley, Henderson said.
“The access workforce that we have access to is probably the No. 2 reason business would want to come here, second to education,” he said. “You begin to look at a 30-minute commute to Gilbert and we have access to over 70 percent of those people that have a degree in science, technology, engineering or math.”
One commercial aspect Gilbert is looking to attract is the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, companies because of the expansion of this field and number of degrees students are earning in these areas.
Gilbert officials hope attracting more STEM companies to the town will allow workers to live close to where they live and stay in the area for longer periods of time.
“You’ve probably seen a lot of rhetoric coming out of this office about why we are going after STEM. It’s not because it’s sexy,” Henderson said. “It’s because it defines who we are and those individuals that have degrees in the East Valley.”
Another area of development town officials are looking to build on is the higher education opportunities available within town limits. While Arizona State University is nearby and both Mesa and Chandler have community colleges, Gilbert residents would have to leave town to attend one of these institutions.
To answer this problem, Chicago-based Saint Xavier University in 2015 will open classrooms and labs in the heart of the Heritage District. The town is in the process of building the 87,000-square-foot building at Gilbert and Vaughn roads.
Paul DeVito, provost of Saint Xavier, said the school partnered with Gilbert to research the higher education needs within the community and found other colleges were either far way or at enrollment capacity.
“(Having a college in Gilbert) could do a lot. I think that’s why they have been looking for an institution like Saint Xavier,” DeVito said. “It could have a significant economic impact.”
The university estimates the annual economic impact on Gilbert could be as much as $44 million by 2024, and Saint Xavier anticipates its presence will draw in supporting but unaffiliated business to better serve the population. School officials expect to see an increase in 150 to 170 employees at both the university and at surrounding businesses.
The Heritage District of Gilbert has become a “foodie district,” Banger said. With popular restaurants like Joe’s Real BBQ, Liberty Market and Postino East, the area is getting much needed attention.
“It has been a long-term effort by multiple councils to revitalize the Heritage District,” he said. “We are seeing that hard work come to fruition.”
During the last 10 or so years Gilbert has worked to preserve the historic water tower and build a park at its base. It has also acquired all available parcels of land to form larger contiguous properties because the area is nearly completely developed, Banger said.
The town recently announced breakfast eatery Snooze, Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles, and burger joint Zinburger will join the area. Henderson said there are four possible restaurants and a boutique hotel the town is working to bring into the downtown area.
The Farmhouse, a breakfast and lunch restaurant in the heart of the Heritage District, opened in 1989 but was several blocks away from the downtown area. It relocated downtown in 2001 and has since seen a huge increase in business, General Manager Sylvia Hilligardt said.
“It was like a blessing,” she said. “We got to buy our building and you can tell what’s happening downtown is good. We have all the restaurants around us, which is definitely a plus.”
Hilligardt said the location near so many other destination restaurants makes people notice The Farmhouse, which leads to repeat business.
In the years to come, Banger said he and other town officials hope Gilbert continues to grow and improve.
“Our hope and desire is that we create a community with long-term sustainability from economic vitality, from job opportunities, from housing value, from the quality of our infrastructure. We want to make good decisions today to make Gilbert stand the test of time.”
• Shelby Slade is a sophomore at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is an intern with the Tribune this semester. Reach her at email@example.com.