A lawyer, an aviation expert and an engineer are all vying for Mesa's only three-way City Council district race.
With undeveloped land swaths, the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway and Falcon Field airport areas drawing companies and jobs, and the Red Mountain freeway construction near completion, issues of balancing growth with quality development top the list of District 5 challenges in the years ahead.That, coupled with creating an identity within a city that has older neighborhoods aching for redevelopment.
Mesa native Phil Austin and longtime residents Vern Mathern and Dina Higgins - running for the council seat vacated by Rex Griswold when he decided to run for mayor - all agree on the need to ensure the area's development doesn't fall off track.
Mathern, a 22-year Mesa resident and a former Boeing Company executive, believes he understands airport operations well enough to make a great candidate for the district. He resigned from the Economic Development Advisory Board to run for City Council.
Mathern said he's seen the area develop from citrus groves and cotton fields to residential communities and shopping malls. But that development, he said, could use some marketing.
"Mesa needs branding to stand for something people can identify with," Mathern said.
He proposes a stronger marketing effort through public-private partnerships, including the local chamber of commerce and the Greater Phoenix Economic Council.
The Mesa Chamber of Commerce, though, has endorsed Austin and Higgins.
A strong proponent of the arts, Mathern plans to promote cultural events in the city.
"The senior population here is looking for entertainment beyond golf courses," said Mathern, 68.
All three candidates believe communication with residents is the key to addressing growth challenges. The City Council is poised to discuss a 51-acre parcel near the posh Las Sendas community, with residents up in arms about what they believe would be an overdose of commercial development at the northeast Mesa site.
Residents also oppose development of Hurricane Bay, a controversial nightclub, for fear of noise and a possible crime increase. But private property rights need to be respected, too, they said.
"Everyone has to do a little give-and-take to accommodate others," Mathern said. "You can't have this not-in-my-backyard business."
Higgins, a 14-year resident and mother of two teenagers, said her focus would be on exploring recommendations in the Mesa 2025 Financing the Future Report, which she believes has "lots of great suggestions" that no one is considering.
Higgins said she supports the $408 million bond proposal headed for the November ballot, which would help pay for police and fire services and street improvement projects through a secondary property tax. Still, she suggested forming citizen advisory boards to discuss the need for each project. Higgins also thinks east Mesa should form a group akin to the west Mesa Community Development Corporation.
A former project development engineer with automotive supplier TRW, Higgins said that and her experience on the city's Board of Adjustment would prove useful in a "growing area that needs close dialogue between residents and the city," she said.
Mathern also supports the bond issue but said a combination of funding sources, not just property taxes, would make it more amenable to residents.
Higgins is promoting herself as the engineer and outsider who will "take politics out of politics."
Austin, a lawyer and community activist, has 16 years' experience in the Arizona Attorney General's Office, where he helped pass fair housing and anti-discrimination legislation. He's big on facilitating community discussions and plans to open an office in east Mesa to be closer to District 5 residents.
He, too, supports the bond proposal but said there needs to be a thorough study of current expenses and other possible funding sources, such as community development block grants, for short-term expenses. East Mesa's greatest asset is its ability to grow without the constraints of existing development, Austin said. Still, he said it may not be immune to the city's other challenges of illegal immigration and crime.
Austin said he would promote more dialogue, using Mesa Community College's Red Mountain campus to host open meetings with city leaders. "We need to include all voices and hear each other out," said Austin, who has tried unsuccessfully to open a local day labor center.
Former District 5 City Councilman Bill Jaffa said a new council member would have to keep abreast of zoning issues in east Mesa.
"They have to have a strong understanding of real estate development," Jaffa said.