When the chief executive of MD Helicopters traveled to Mesa’s Falcon Field Airport last week to talk business, none of the city’s top officials waited to greet her.
Instead it was the city’s airport director, Corrine Nystrom, who led the negotiations — in what local officials hope will be successful bargaining to keep the revitalized business and 400 employees operating out of the airport.
City officials defend their strategy with MD Helicopters, and say they believe an agreement can be reached on a longterm lease at Falcon Field.
However, local business observers say it was a misstep that highlights the city’s shortsightedness and short-handedness when it comes to luring commerce.
Those critics say the city should be looking to attract more of MD Helicopters’ business.
“That’s the apathy that exists, and I can’t tell you why the apathy’s there,” said Charlie Deaton, CEO and president of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce.
Mesa chamber officials are getting serious about developing a solution to what they see as a lack of innovation when it comes to economic development in the city.
The chamber is launching a study with Arizona State University Polytechnic in an effort to prove Mesa has an eroding economic base that lowers personal income and reduces educational opportunities.
The chamber also has discussed hiring its own economic development people, which could assist the city in luring industry, manufacturing and other good-paying jobs.
However, it could be an uphill battle.
Mayor Keno Hawker mentions frequently at City Council sessions that Mesa doesn’t directly benefit from landing manufacturers and heavy industry, a key component of developing Williams Gateway Airport, because the city doesn’t have a property tax at stake.
Critics say that’s the wrong approach and that it ignores the larger economic benefits of having a strong employment base.
“That makes me so disappointed. We’re the only community in the country that would sit and say these things,” said Lois Yates, executive director of the Falcon Field Area Alliance.
The city’s struggle to become a player in the economic development game is evident by its depleted ranks.
Mesa has been operating without a permanent director for its economic development department since late 2005.
Former head Richard Mulligan and interim head Teri Kilgore left for Chandler, which boasts computer-chip giant Intel and other manufacturers.
City officials said changes brought on by City Manager Chris Brady, in his second year with Mesa, are still evolving in the city’s economic development department.
“If you go down there, we’ve got two people and they’re both ready to retire,” City Councilman Rex Griswold quipped about what many people believe is an under-staffed department.
Brady and the city’s economic development staff were not available for comment.
However, the economic woes extend far beyond the city’s halls of power, business groups contend.
Rapid residential growth in the 1980s and ’90s fed the city’s coffers and helped paint a rosy economic picture.
But a chase for retail sales tax dollars in power centers that attract Home Depots, Wal-Marts and other large retailers could work against Mesa in the future, Deaton said.
The study with ASU Polytechnic could build a case for a greater effort to secure a solid economic base, and to depart from the trend of a heavy reliance on retail and the resulting low-wage jobs.
The trend becomes a problem when businesses try to locate in the city and can’t find an adequately trained work force there.
The city often cites a need for a more balanced jobs-tohousing ratio, but Deaton argues that officials haven’t done much to produce it.
“They say that on the front end, but they haven’t done anything to make it happen,” he said.