By Kaye Foley
With superb weather and a relaxed ambiance, Phoenix has long been known as a great place to visit, but this Valley of the Sun city is revamping its image and proving it’s also a great place to live.
During the Great Recession, Phoenix — with its economy primarily based on real estate and construction — was one of the hardest-hit cities. Now the city is bouncing back, with city leadership focused on creating a more resilient economy.
“I had to look in the mirror. Other community leaders had to look in the mirror and say, ‘We’ve got to change our ways,’” said Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton.
“In 2007, this was a pretty thriving economy, but it was consumption-based … and when the recession hit, almost the entire economy in metro Phoenix stopped,” explained Christine Mackay, director of the city’s Community and Economic Development Department. “It’s now more based on advanced manufacturing and health care. It’s based on technology and true job creation.”
Often considered a poster child for suburban sprawl, Phoenix is drawing people back to its urban core. Downtown is becoming a destination for businesses and citizens because of better public transportation, like the light rail, growing art and culture scenes, and university campuses — especially Arizona State University.
“People voted to tax themselves to pay for the capital infrastructure for Arizona State University downtown,” Mayor Stanton said. “They knew they wanted the life and vibrancy that comes with having a great university campus.”
In part due to its revitalizing downtown and cheaper costs of living, Phoenix is experiencing a tech boom. In 2012, there were 67 tech companies. As of this year, there are over 275.
“ASU is ranked as the No. 1 innovative university in the country. … You bring these thought leaders and these ideas into downtown Phoenix,” said Mackay. “Now you bring in tech companies and leading-edge companies who want access to that workforce.”
“We wanted to start our company in a really different way,” said J.T. Marino, co-founder of Tuft & Needle, a mattress company that began in 2012 in Silicon Valley.
“We wanted to keep this thing bootstrapped and scrappy so that our loyalties were primarily to our customers and not to shareholders. So why not move to the place that’s more economical. … This is a huge sandbox to test and build.”
Phoenix was once labeled the “least sustainable city in the world.” Now the desert city is bringing about sustainable solutions. By setting up solar panels, LED light bulbs, and a citywide alternative-fuel fleet, Phoenix is making strides. In 2013, the city set the ambitious goal of diverting 40 percent of the 1 million tons of trash sent to its landfill by 2020 with the Reimagine Phoenix Initiative.
“We’re trying to educate our residents on how to recycle more, how to reduce their waste,” explained Public Works director Ginger Spencer. Through Reimagine Phoenix, the city is “partnering with public, private partners to create new programs to take our waste and repurpose it.”
“What we’re throwing away and things that we’re recycling actually have a tremendous amount of value,” said Alicia Marseille, the director of ASU’s Resource Innovation & Solutions Network (RISN) Incubator. In partnership with the city of Phoenix, the RISN Incubator works with entrepreneurs and small businesses to turn the city’s trash into resources.
Phoenix is the largest city to have both a female police chief and fire chief. Fire Chief Kara Kalkbrenner and Police Chief Jeri Williams are the first women to hold each of these top positions in the city. Kalkbrenner and Williams, who both grew up in Phoenix and have known each other since junior high school, worked their way up in their respective fields for decades, proving they were the best people for these jobs.
“Phoenix is very progressive,” said Fire Chief Kalkbrenner. “They feel that the leadership team of the city should mirror the community. … So if you look at the diverse community that we have, we have an extremely diverse workforce.”
“We could go down the list of 20 or 30 people who are leading departments [who] are not gender specific … who are rock star amazing human beings too,” said Police Chief Williams. “So we’re not the only ones. It’s a great city to work for.”
“They were by far the most qualified and respected candidates, who happened to be women,” said Mayor Stanton. “Anybody can rise to the very top of their organization. And that’s not just talk. In Phoenix, we walk the walk.”
Like the mythical bird (and the city’s namesake), Phoenix is rising and ready to build a better tomorrow.
“We are building an incredible city,” said Mayor Stanton. “That is something that we’re gonna look back upon in 30, 40 years and say, when Phoenix is considered one of the leading economic cities in America, ‘We helped build that,’ right now in 2017.”