Marty Barrett of Champaign, Ill., had heard of Scottsdale before a recent stroll he and his wife took under the shaded awnings of its upscale downtown shops.
But until his daughter relocated to Arizona, his geographic vocabulary did not include the names “Chandler” or “Gilbert.”
Now he’s thinking of moving to one of those growing East Valley cities.
“When my son-in-law first said ‘Chandler,’ I thought it had to be a small town,” said Barrett, 55. “It’s mind-boggling how big it is.”
Like the Barretts, relatively few people outside the state ascribe much — if any — meaning to the names of many Valley cities that are now some the biggest burgs in the country. New census estimates released this month illustrate how the phenomenal growth has pushed cities including Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Scottsdale into the big time — by sheer resident numbers, anyway.
Mesa, with 426,841 people, is now larger than Atlanta. Chandler has squeaked past Montgomery, Ala. The fastest growing big city in the country, Gilbert, is bigger than Hartford, Conn., and gaining an average of 1,000 more residents each month.
For a variety of reasons, national recognition of these growing Arizona cities remains minimal compared to many cities they have surpassed. Except for Scottsdale, most East Valley cities lack even a basic identity —other than being a sprawling, fast-growing suburb.
Yet as the growth shows, people often move to these cities once they learn more about them.
Mike and Maryann Perry lived 13 years in San Diego — practically next door to the Valley — and knew nothing more about Mesa other than that it was somewhere in Arizona. Originally from New Jersey, they had never heard of Chandler until Mike Perry's sister moved there and they began visiting her.
“We started looking at the homes and said, ‘My God, this is really nice,’” Perry said.
Of course, it isn’t surprising that Atlanta is better known than Mesa. Atlanta is a 166-year-old city in one of the original 13 states, and was the site of major action during the Civil War.
Mesa, though 125 years old, was little more than a tiny farming town until the remarkable growth spurt of recent decades.
Atlanta also is the primary city in a much larger metropolitan area, and the region's larger overall population has attracted many large corporations, such as Coca-Cola. Mesa is a bedroom community without a strong employment base. Chandler and Gilbert also can be considered more of an extension of Phoenix sprawl than economic forces in their own right, said Tom Rex of the Center for Business Research at Arizona State University.
Further diluting the name recognition of suburban cities is the fact that the Valley itself is a relatively small metropolitan area, ranking 14th among similar populated regions in the United States, Rex said.
“Arizona is out in the boondocks, really,” he said.
Yet the large populations of Mesa, Chandler and other East Valley cities mean they will likely make names for themselves — someday. What these cities are eventually known for, however, might not necessarily be something positive. Montgomery is better known than Chandler, for example, because it exemplifies the struggle between racists and the civil rights movement.
City leaders often try to steer their future identity, with varying degrees of success. They try to develop their downtown areas, adding amenities such as the $94.5 million arts center under construction in Mesa. They coax large corporations to move in with tax breaks.
Decades ago, Scottsdale cultivated its “brand name” as an exclusive resort community with upscale shops and housing. Now people all over the country — and in other parts of the world — have heard of the city, said Scottsdale City Manager Jan Dolan.
Developing a good national reputation is important because it attracts job-creating companies, which benefits cities in the long term, she said. Perhaps it will be the region that gets popularized, like Silicon Valley, Dolan said.
“The East Valley could be better known than the individual cities,” she said.
That possibility could benefit a city such as Mesa, which has tried hard to shake its reputation as a bland, mediocre place.
Now that the Perry's know the area better, something does come to mind when they think of Mesa:
“It's not as upscale of a community,” said Maryann Perry, 54.
And of Chandler:
“Another growing community,” Perry said. “It's not like where you can get the best shopping or best restaurants . . .”
“But what we like about it — it's not as crowded,” her husband continued.
The couple is now waiting for their brand-new home to be built near Cooper Road and Chandler Boulevard, in the big city that last year they didn't know existed.