Gilbert uses forward-thinking boldness to cultivate big-city economic growth
When someone celebrates a milestone birthday, it’s not unusual to hear phrases like, “Wow, she really looks good for her age,” or, “So-and-so has really come a long way from when I first met him.” This year, as Gilbert celebrates its 100th birthday, anyone who knew the town “way back when” would likely agree that both previously mentioned comments are applicable. After all, once referred to as the “Hay Capital of the World,” Gilbert has evolved into a cutting-edge center of innovation over its first 100 years.
From plenty of hay to Gilbert today
“When one looks back, it’s unavoidable to view Gilbert as a farm community,” says Richard Morrison, water law attorney and co-founder of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, “although it’s certainly not perceived that way now.”
Morrison knows Gilbert’s history intimately. Both sides of his family were farmers who migrated to the town specifically for its agriculture properties during Gilbert’s early days.
“With the building of the Roosevelt Dam, people knew there would be a reliable source of irrigation and an abundant source of water from the Salt and Verde rivers,” Morrison says.
And yes, of course, there was the hay. “Gilbert had more hay shipments during the 1920s and 1930s than any other place in the world,” Morrison adds.
Gilbert’s humble beginnings shifted in agricultural focus after World War II, when baby boom farmers faced the challenges in farming by beginning to integrate horizontal and vertical farming.
“Rather than just growing alfalfa, farmers would also expand feedlots,” Morrison explains. “Horizontally, they would start dairies or buy cattle ranches. This helped greatly diversify production and commodities to give rise to the farmers’ ability to withstand the economic obstacles of the time.”
It wasn’t until around 1965, according to Morrison, that Gilbert’s first subdivision was established. And although the arrival of a subdivision wasn’t considered an impediment to farming (by-and-large), it did trigger many farmers to evaluate whether it was time for them to sell.
“There was a little anti-growth mentality then, but the coming of the Superstition Freeway was the impetus for significant growth,” Morrison says.
Around 1970, Gilbert experienced a shift toward becoming the progressive town it is today. The Gilbert Town Council annexed 53 square miles of country land, preparing to mimic the growth they were witnessing in nearby Tempe, Mesa and Chandler — despite a mere 1,971 residents at the time. And it was wise they did so.
Since then, Gilbert has become a progressive, vibrant community with a current population of about of 266,971 residents (which doubled every five years from 1980-2000). By 2030, Gilbert is expected to be fully built out, with an anticipated population of over 300,000. While Gilbert is growing to be one of the largest municipalities in Arizona, the community remains youthful and vibrant. With a median age of 33.8 and 67.6 percent of the population under the age of 45, Gilbert provides an abundant pipeline of talent to support the growth of business and industry.
Still got that town charm
“Gilbert is currently the largest town in the United States,” Morrison says. “Many times, people have questioned why Gilbert hasn’t transitioned to a city form of government. But, town leaders consistently say no — ‘we want it to be an open, friendly, welcoming atmosphere — we are going to remain a town.’”
Maintaining its town status has not prevented Gilbert from accomplishing its economic development goals. If anything, the town’s mission statement perfectly encapsulates the way Gilbert does business and why it works: “Anticipate. Create. Help people.”
“Our culture reflects our shared values, beliefs and practices, and that we are committed to being driven, kind, bold and humble,” says Jenn Daniels, mayor of Gilbert.
Gilbert may be humble, but on paper, the community has much to offer residents and companies seeking a viable and innovative location, starting with a talented workforce: 70 percent of technology employees, 60 percent of healthcare workers, 73 percent of engineers and 67 percent of the Metro Phoenix’s advanced business services workforce reside within a 30-minute commute from Gilbert.
“Gilbert was a logical choice for relocating our world headquarters,” says Jim Coover, co-founder and chairman of Isagenix International. “It was in close proximity to our former location, we have a significant number of our employees who have made Gilbert their home, and we love the family values shared by the community. The town has proved to be a great place for our company, as it’s given Isagenix visibility within the community, which has led to valuable partnerships with local business groups and nonprofit organizations.”
Gilbert is also conveniently served by two freeways — the US 60 (Superstition Freeway) and Loop 202 (SanTan Freeway) — and lies within close proximity to two international airports — Phoenix-Mesa Gateway and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
“We have a commitment to preserving land throughout Gilbert to support job growth and ensure fiscal sustainability,” Daniels says. “In 2019, Gilbert was awarded the Best City for Business in Arizona by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, due to its commitment to supporting local businesses, driving economic development, reducing regulatory burdens on businesses and working with the business community.”
Sign of success
A perfect example of Gilbert’s dedication to nurturing local businesses can be found in Deloitte. With its local roots dating back to 1961, Deloitte has opened a 200,000-square-foot U.S. Delivery Center at Rivulon in Gilbert. When complete, the center will bring more than 2,500 jobs to Gilbert and will operate as a technology operations delivery center that will help Deloitte drive its technology solutions to clients in Arizona and across the nation, says Jonas McCormick, Greater Phoenix managing principal at Deloitte Consulting.
“Gilbert is the perfect home for Deloitte as there are a multitude of opportunities for synergy between the world class organization and this community,” Daniels says. “With the creation of these high-wage, tech-focused jobs, Deloitte will be one of the largest employers in Gilbert. This will not just benefit those in Gilbert but all of the Phoenix-metro area.”
The 2,500 jobs will be IT-driven positions that will work on the development and management of many technology solutions in the cloud, AI
“Since 1961, Deloitte has been a part of the Greater Phoenix community so we were already well aware of the thriving talent pool in Arizona,” says Matt Even, managing director of Deloitte Consulting. “When we decided to open our Gilbert facility and now expand that facility, we took a close look at the long-term economics, available sites and a number of other key factors. Additionally, the Arizona Commerce Authority and the town of Gilbert — and specifically Mayor Jenn Daniels’ office — were very supportive and helpful in this process and we appreciate their efforts and support of our decision to grow our presence here.”
In addition to Deloitte, Gilbert is home to Northrop Grumman, GoDaddy, Isagenix International, Affinitas Corp., Morgan Stanley, Amerifirst Financial, Merrill Lynch and many additional notable and growing companies. Gilbert also has more than 2 million square feet of hospital and clinical research facilities, including Banner M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the Ironwood Cancer Research Center; Mercy Gilbert Medical Center, Banner Gateway Medical Center and Gilbert Hospital. Currently, there is more than 650,000 square feet of medical or healthcare space under construction or planned in Gilbert.
Fostering future growth
While Gilbert’s economic expansion continues in the development of existing and new businesses from a variety of industries, the town has the added benefit of a solid education infrastructure — an education system that promises to propel an already flourishing pipeline of skilled workers.
“Gilbert’s commitment to education has made us a destination for the top public, private and charter schools,” says Daniels. “In 2019, three school districts located in Gilbert were named among the Top 10 School Districts in Arizona — Chandler Unified School District, Gilbert Public School District and Higley Unified School District.”
Park University, the University of Arizona College of Nursing, (which began its first semester of college courses in 2019), and STEM programs at Arizona State University and Chandler-Gilbert Community College are among Gilbert’s post-secondary opportunities.
Next 100 years
Daniels’ efforts have not gone unnoticed. CTIA, the wireless industry association, presented Daniels with its 5G Wireless Champion Award, honoring her focus on infrastructure modernization that will bring new investment to the Gilbert community. The award recognized Daniels’ leadership in making Gilbert the first community in Arizona to streamline the ability of wireless companies to deploy small cells – next-generation 5G wireless infrastructure – in accordance with Arizona House Bill 2365.
“The Town of Gilbert’s leadership has been focused on a long-term vision of our future, which has included investments in land acquisition, creating a pro-business environment and creating modernized infrastructure — roads, sewer and water systems,” Daniels says. “In addition, we have increased transparency within the Gilbert community by unveiling Alex, an open data portal, that gives information such as trends, statistics about Gilbert’s safety, growth, development, finance, transportation and more.”
If the last 100 years is any indication of the future possibilities Gilbert has in terms of maturation and milestones — across the board — great things are yet to come.
You’ve come a long way, Gilbert.