There’s a difference between being a CEO and being mayor of America’s 39th largest city, or at least there should be.
I doubt that mayor-elect Scott Smith has figured this out, but I’m not going to give up hope.
My doubts track back to a pre-election story in which Tribune reporter Sonu Munshi asked him and challenger Rex Griswold, “What’s the first issue you’ll tackle if elected.”
“The bond issue,” he replied. “The economy has changed a lot since the $400 million bond issue was passed last fall. We have to look closely whether the assumptions or needs back then still hold true.”
Here we are in the middle of a devastating economic downturn. People are losing their jobs. They’re losing their houses. They’re paying nearly $4 a gallon for gas to commute to work in Scottsdale or Tempe or someplace that has jobs, and Scott Smith is talking about bond issue assumptions!
Now I think Smith has a lot of potential; but if he is going to be a successful mayor, he needs to raise his sights and use his new bully pulpit to turn Mesa into a city where people from Tempe and Scottsdale go to find jobs.
Well-paying jobs. Not retail jobs. Not housing construction and service jobs. Not jobs that wilt when the economy turns south.
For the record, the city of Mesa’s economic development office has calculated that there are 41 jobs in Mesa for every 100 people. They don’t have comparable statistics for other East Valley cities, but the Greater Phoenix Economic Council does.
GPEC’s research department puts jobs per capita in Tempe at 93 for every 100 people and in Scottsdale 73 for every 100 people. They also put jobs per capita in Mesa at 25 percent lower than the city’s number. I have no idea which is the better number.
Everything the city worries about — sales tax collections to pay police and keep the streets in good repair — would all become manageable if there were more well-paying jobs in Mesa.
City leaders, including Scott Smith, understand this. But what happens is they get caught in a trap that GPEC executive director Barry Broome calls “the Arizona Economic Model.”
It goes like this.
More people move here than there are jobs. Housing demand goes up. Developers crank up their machinery to provide housing for these people. City services come under strain from all the new people. City leaders become increasingly focused on how to pay for those services. They fight tooth and nail for more retail businesses to generate tax revenues and they look to borrow money through bond issues.
But what happens when the people stop moving in and housing-related income goes away? Well, many Mesans are living it and commuting it — many for far too many miles.
“If we are going to sustain the economy, we have to be about jobs, high-paying jobs,” Broome says.
Amen to that.
Before you assume Broome is critical of Mesa and its leadership, I need to set the record straight.
“Mesa is doing a pretty good job,” Broome says.
He points to efforts to turn Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport into a jobs haven. He praises Mesa’s new economic director, William Jabjiniak, for his role in keeping MD Helicopters from leaving Falcon Field and Arizona. He points to the planning surrounding the land that was once the General Motors Proving Grounds next to Gateway.
Sure, there’s tremendous potential, and all candidates for city office this year seemed to agree that developing the Gateway airport area was important.
But is that enough?
I don’t think so. That’s why I want former developer and now Mayor Smith to be about jobs, high-paying jobs.
I want him to beat that drum so loud that we’re all inspired to make it so. So loud that business and industry know they will be welcome. So loud that city workers will be facilitators, not obstacles. So loud that no one will question whether Mesa really wants to be anything more than an oversized bedroom community.