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The East Valley: 30 years and counting

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

Posted: Sunday, October 30, 2011 5:00 am | Updated: 8:49 am, Sun Oct 30, 2011.

East Valley Children’s Theatre. East Valley Internal Medicine. East Valley Grace Brethren Church. East Valley Institute of Technology. East Valley Women of Color Meet-up. East Valley Jewish Community Center. East Valley Veterans Parade. Etc. Etc.

Schools, churches, businesses and business associations, even social groups have embraced the East Valley as part of their identity in a way that would have been unimaginable nearly 30 years ago when a newspaper publisher coined it.

Go to the White Pages or turn a corner and you’ll bump into the words “East Valley.”

Do nothing but sit at your computer and if you’re a customer of Amazon.com, chances are you’ll see an email pop into your in-basket announcing “Today’s deal in East Valley.”

Sure, if you fly to Cleveland, you’re from Phoenix or the Phoenix area. But fly home and you follow the signs out of Sky Harbor to East Valley cities.

Go to Glendale and mention the East Valley and they know you are referring to Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert and neighboring communities.

So what is this collection of cities, really? Is it just a way of saying the eastern part of the Valley of the Sun? Or is it something more?

Is it a special place where the powers-that-be are collaborating and laying the foundation for prosperity, or are they mostly protecting their turf?

Are places like Intel and the Price Road Corridor, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MD Anderson Cancer Center, ASU’s College of Technology and Innovation, Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, and First Solar building a reputation for the East Valley? A reputation as a bona fide science and technology hub?

Will places like Mill Avenue, the Mesa Arts Center, Joe’s Barbeque, the lower Salt River Valley recreation corridor, the Gilbert Riparian preserve and restaurant row in downtown Chandler stoke the region’s reputation as a good place to live as well as work? 

Will the East Valley ever have the Wikipedia recognition of, say, California’s gritty Inland Empire? Or the cache of Orange County? Or dare we shoot higher and aim for the stature of Silicon Valley?

Speculation on how far we can go is only speculation, but the reality of how far the notion of East Valley has taken us in just 30 years is measurable.

East Valley is born

Our tale of the tape begins right around 1982, according to Charles “Chuck” Wahlheim.

In those days there was Phoenix and the rest of the Valley.

East of Phoenix were the small cities of Mesa, Tempe and Chandler. Gilbert was a speck on the map.   

But the shots were called in Phoenix and the group of businessmen who called the shots were known as the Phoenix 40. And at the center of the Phoenix 40 was then Arizona Republic publisher Darrow “Duke” Tulley.

Wahlheim was a newspaperman hired by Cox Newspapers out of Atlanta to get the company a foothold in Arizona.

Cox bought the Mesa Tribune for $14 million and paid $1 million for the Tempe Daily News and another $1 million for the Chandler Arizonan, Wahlheim said.

In short order, the company had three newspapers in three towns with Indian communities to the north and south and a dry river bed that separated them from the big city.

At the time, the east side communities were laced with fields and were definable, separate places. They weren’t the big cities of today that sprawl seamlessly together.

Even so, Wahlheim saw a marketing opportunity. 

“We ought to be able to take this area and identify it by some kind of name,” Wahlheim recalled thinking. 

The name that caught his imagination was East Valley.

Wahlheim didn’t hesitate to use his newspapers to birth this new name.

He remembers telling the late Mesa Tribune editor Max Jennings to capitalize East Valley and “to use it whenever you are talking about this area over here.”

Wahlheim said he approached grocer Eddie Basha and asked for his help in creating a business group to be the East Valley’s answer to the Phoenix 40 — with one key difference: What would become the East Valley Partnership would not be limited to an elite number of members. 

One of the founders of the partnership was the late Jack Whiteman of Empire Southwest, a heavy equipment company.

“My dad and a number of East Valley businesses wanted to have the East Valley equivalent of the Phoenix 40,” said John Whiteman, who followed his father in leading the prosperous dealership. “Back then everything seemed to be going to Phoenix.

“He thought the East Valley should have stronger representation” in government and business.

About the same time, the region was developing political clout as a result of community leaders from the heavily Republican east side helping Democrat Bruce Babbitt win the governor’s office. 

One of the rewards was that East Valley resident Bob Evans was appointed to the Arizona Department of Transportation, where he could influence the construction of the Superstition Freeway.

Then County Supervisor Tom Freestone fought to be bring a court complex to Mesa so that the East Valley would not have to travel to downtown Phoenix for services.

Mike Hutchinson, a former city manager for Mesa and currently director of the East Valley Aviation & Aerospace Alliance, recalls the period as sort of an awakening of leadership in the region “fighting for money for the east side.”

While leaders worked together to build a transportation system for the region, a regional perspective arm-wrestled with city halls focused on building their individual communities.

East Valley, the institution

At times in the 90s, the East Valley Partnership was on life support.

It was nearly 10 years after the concept of East Valley was introduced before the name was institutionalized. In 1991, the East Valley Institute of Technology opened its doors.

What had once been Mesa Vocational School won legislative approval for an East Valley regional property tax base and offered its services to students throughout the region.

Today, the student body is drawn from 10 school districts from Fountain Hills to Queen Creek, and students study to become auto mechanics and doctors in an ever-widening career-focused education program.

Even what had been the East Valley’s founding newspaper struggled with its identity and service vision. In May 1977, the paper rediscovered its roots and, under new ownership, collapsed its city newspapers into a regional paper simply called The Tribune. In much smaller letters was the subtitle “Serving the Communities of the East Valley.” 

It wasn’t until December of 1999 that the paper gave “East Valley” equal weight with “Tribune” in the banner. 

“You don’t have to read the fine print anymore,” I wrote in a front page column on Dec. 12.  “The Tribune is edited for the East Valley; and, as you can see from our new look, we are saying so loud and clear.”

During the same period, the Chandler Children’s Theatre was relocating to Mesa and in search of a new name, according Karen Ralston, who has been with the group for 15 years and currently serves as its artistic director.   

In 1997, the theater group made its move to Mesa and rechristened itself the “East Valley Children’s Theatre.”

Why not Mesa or some other name?

“East Valley was a better term because they wanted to encompass more than a single city,” explained Ralston. “At that time, the East Valley was just basically developing. They (board members) thought it was a good marketing tool.”

Indeed, it was. Ralston said the theater draws children from Scottsdale to the Ahwatukee Foothills.

And today, a slew of businesses have adopted that regional model.

Wahlheim singles out Roc Arnett, director of the East Valley Partnership for the past nine years, for having “done an unbelievably great job of using his power base for the betterment of the citizens of the East Valley.”

Arnett, in turn, tips his hat to the East Valley mayors.

“What’s happened recently is that for the first time since I’ve been in this business, is that the four cities have begun talking to each other and working with each other,” Arnett said. “All of a sudden we’re starting to coalesce. We’re trying to do things as a larger community.”

Four cities, one East Valley

A united East Valley was never more evident than a few months ago at a forum in Gilbert hosted by the Arizona Republic — the newspaper that once was at the center of the Phoenix 40.

Mayors Hugh Hallman of Tempe, John Lewis of Gilbert, Jay Tibshraeny of Chandler, and Scott Smith of Mesa took turns complimenting one another and talking about how much stronger the East Valley is as a region when the cities are working together.

Hallman: “All four of us have been talking over the last year or so of how do we take this East Valley and market it better to the people who want to bring businesses here?”

Lewis: “All four communities are working together to share thoughts and ideas about things that we can control. I hope we don’t get tired of seeing each other.”

Tibshraeny: “I’m asked, ‘Are you guys competing?’ The answer is, ‘No, not really.’ We have a region that is really dynamic. We’re talking about collaborating, not competing. It’s going to be good for the Valley and it’s going to be good for the East Valley. Companies are going to come in and locate because they are going to see the synergy we have.”

Smith: “If you look at these four cities, there are nearly a million people … We’re all one connected sub-metropolis with a great story and with a spine system of freeways ... Here are the assets: We have MD Anderson, ASU, Gateway, Boeing. I mean it’s an incredible story. The four of us have joined to recognize that we have a great story as a region.”

Thirty years after a newspaper publisher came up with a marketing scheme, four cities with different strengths but common borders are embracing the benefits of looking to the future as a region.

What if the idea of an unmapped place called the East Valley had never been sown and watered by the local newspaper? Would we have what we have today and the potential for tomorrow that the mayors talked about?

“I don’t think it would have ever happened,” said Wahlheim. “There were a lot of forces that didn’t like the idea of East Valley. We never would have gotten an area quite like this.”

• Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

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