Mesa’s economic future hinges on careful airport development, attracting high-salary jobs and encouraging quality redevelopment, according to the city’s new economic development director William Jabjiniak.
But a strong economic development plan won’t matter if the city doesn’t have money to spend, a prominent East Valley economist says.
As the city official responsible for luring businesses to Mesa, Jabjiniak must be an expert on all the assets — financial and otherwise — Mesa can offer over other cities in the Valley and the Southwest region.
Jabjiniak relocated from Richmond, Va., just more than three months ago — after the Mesa position had been vacant or temporarily filled for two years.
One reason the city had difficulty filling the position is because of its light emphasis on economic development in the past, said Mesa Chamber of Commerce president Charlie Deaton.
“It’s important that we have the right guy in that position,” Deaton said. “It’s a very critical position the city has, in my opinion, not given the kind of attention to that it should. We’re seeing that, hopefully, change.”
The city originally planned to pay for Jabjiniak’s relocation with a mix of public funds and private donations collected by local business consortium the East Valley Partnership, but the deal fell apart after media scrutiny.
The relocation costs — about $65,000 in addition to his $142,400 annual salary — now will be covered by the city.
In an interview Monday, Jabjiniak shared his newcomer perspective on the city and its economic opportunities.
When it comes to attracting business, Mesa gets the edge with its transportation, land, outdoor recreation and atmosphere, Jabjiniak said.
“It’s a big city with a small city feel,” he said.
Deaton added “quality-of-life” amenities such as education, home prices, arts and culture, and weather.
All of those features will come into play as the city drafts its plan for the thousands of mostly undeveloped acres near the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.
First, be wary of forgetting there are two airports, Jabjiniak said. The city does want to grow general aviation at Falcon Field as well.
Its focus at Gateway, however, will be more specific.
“We’re looking at ‘Big P passenger’ and ‘little c cargo,’” Jabjiniak said.
With a focus on passenger services at the airport, the city will have an opportunity to attract jobs. It’s shooting for at least 100,000 high-paying positions in such fields as research, technology, bioscience and health care.
And with those higher-level jobs, the city will be looking to add dining and shopping.
“We want it to be so that you can go to the airport and fly to Dallas for a meeting and be back for dinner,” he said.
City leaders are looking to the airport area as an employment hub and a boost to its own economy, now mostly funded through sales tax revenue.
Mesa is one of the few cities poised to capitalize on its local airport, and could follow the trend set by the Scottsdale Airpark employment hub, said Tom Rex, Arizona State University professor of state and metro-Phoenix economy.
With affordable housing, proximity to ASU Polytechnic and capacity for commercial flights, “Mesa could really take a jump ahead,” Rex said.
But the city’s ongoing financial struggle could hinder its economic development potential, Rex said.
“When you don’t have much money, you’re not spending and not building infrastructure that companies want to see,” he said. “You get what you pay for. The people of Mesa aren’t willing to pay for more taxes and more city services, so that dictates the nature of the community.”
Jabjiniak said garnering more sales tax revenue isn’t necessarily his purpose.
“My focus is on bringing quality jobs,” he said.
On the western side of the city, Jabjiniak won’t say exactly what he has planned for downtown Mesa, just that he wants to “make it a destination point.”
“The wide streets are not pedestrian friendly,” he said. “We need to get people out of their cars.”
One of the keys to that development will be the extension of light rail, if the city decides to expand its reach into downtown Mesa.
“Mesa has a center line planned for light rail,” Jabjiniak said. “Main Street has a median — there’s your light rail. Do a loop around and there is vacant land.”
Downtown and other, older parts of Mesa will benefit greatly from adaptive uses, he aid.
“Redevelopment is not a nasty word,” he said. “We just need to work with the community to figure out what’s missing.”