Jenn Daniels has been dealt a pretty good hand as Gilbert’s current mayor.
The challenge for Daniels and Gilbert — which has morphed from farms and ranches to a suburban bedrooom community to a popular restaurant row — is how they play that hand going forward.
Gilbert is looking at bringing more businesses, retail and commercial projects to its popular restaurant row downtown on Gilbert Road north of Elliott Road.
Daniels and the town have some pretty good references on that front.
Upward Projects — which has a Postino Winecafe and Joyride Tacos — also restaurants along the same stretch.
Gilbert’s restaurant cluster — which also includes Liberty Market, Grubstak and Barrio Queen — are top performing locations for those eateries.
Daniels said it helps having success stories from the likes of Upward’s Craig DeMarco and Gilbert developer and businessman Joe Johnston. Johnston was part of the group that bought Liberty Market and transformed it from a convenience store to a popular, cool restaurant. He’s also the mind behind the cutting edge Agritopia development at Ray Road and the Loop 202.
“We have an outsider and an insider,” Daniels said of those who can preach of Gilbert’s success.
Daniels took over Gilbert mayor in 2016 after John Lewis stepped down to become president and CEO of the East Valley Partnership.
She was elected to her own four-year term last November.
Part of Gilbert’s strong hand to sell to restaurants and employers are its demographics. Forty-one percent of the town’s population has at least a bachelor’s degree, its median household income is $82,424. That puts its demographics in the company of Scottsdale and resulted in the likes of Topgolf and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) to land locations in a town founded before World War II by Mormons escaping the Mexican revolution.
Gilbert Economic Development Director Dan Henderson and real estate brokers such as CBRE Group’s Bryan Taute say they are seeing more employer and office interest in Gilbert with its restaurant row appealling to millennials and other workers and employers eyeing shorter commutes for the East Valley labor pool.
“It’s a reverse commute,” Henderson said.
Daniels said while Gilbert benefits from low crime rates and its public schools, it is still perceived as a bedroom community. Gilbert is 22 miles from downtown Phoenix.
Gilbert — which is in the heart of the politically conservative East Valley suburbs of Phoenix — has taken some less conventional paths toward redevelopment of its downtown area and growth in general.
The town bought up a number of properties in its downtown area in previous years. Daniels said, ironically, that was to avoid potential blight.
What that has done is allowed the town to chart its downtown development course and bring in a hometown and ‘foodie’-oriented mix of restaurants and projects rather than more laisezz-faire, developer-driven growth that can be seen across the Phoenix region and few blocks away on Guadalupe and Baseline roads.
It’s also allowed Gilbert to create a small-town feel in the midst of the sprawling 4.7-million-person Phoenix market.
That appeals to business owners and others who have moved or located in Gilbert such as Jasmine Holmes, principal with 910 West, a high-tech marketing company. She and her husband moved to Gilbert in 2004 and have seen significant growth. Holmes said she just wants to make sure Gilbert — which now has a population of more than 237,000 — keeps its small town niche.
Those are areas where Daniels and the town have to find balance with the market and keeping a pro-business tenor in the conservative East Valley.
Daniels said for the town-owned parcels that requests for proposals have been issued and the market have both helped decide what’s been developed.
Daniels also wants to keep tabs on whether existing small and “mom and pop” businesses aren’t victims of Gilbert’s success and priced out by rising real estate rents.
Daniels herself feels more the small town mayor than some other elected officials in Phoenix who can be surrounded and guided by handlers and equally politically aspirant aides.
That comes despite Gilbert — which still has town status — having a larger population than the cities of Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Richmond, Virginia; San Bernardino, California; and Des Moines, Iowa, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Gilbert has also been less gung-ho on new apartments than other Valley cities. The new District Lofts are now open near Gilbert’s downtown and its hallmark Water Tower.
Daniels said overall Gilbert just wants to practice “aggressive patience” as it charts its growth course.
That hasn’t always been the norm in growth-oriented Arizona which has strong private property rights laws and in developer and home builder friendly Phoenix which can get caught up and caught in real estate run-ups and market crashes.
The patience and “cohesive design” efforts Daniels points to as part of downtown Gilbert’s success aren’t always followed regionally.