Within a matter of decades, Gilbert has evolved from an agriculture-driven suburb into a fast-growing economic hub with an increasingly diverse economic portfolio. The town has been growing by roughly six to eight thousand new residents each year, and according to Gilbert’s Office of Economic Development, the population will likely reach over 300,000 people by 2030.
According to Patrick Banger, town manager for the Town of Gilbert, that amount of growth is something that many fast-developing suburbs struggle to keep up with. That’s why Gilbert officials created what they call the City of the Future strategic initiative – a plan designed to maintain community health in the coming decades by focusing on the long-term impacts of decisions being made today.
“We are trying to understand at a much more specific level, what is it that we need to do to make sure that Gilbert still looks this way 20 years from now?” Banger said.
According to Banger, many suburban communities experience cycles of growth and decline; while Gilbert is currently in a cycle of growth, that could eventually change once the community is fully built-out in a decade or two.
“That businesses still see this as the place to reinvest in their businesses, to expand in their businesses, that we can maintain this quality of life and this vitality that we’ve created, is something that’s really become a defining focus for us over the last year,” he said.
Here’s one situation that Banger says Town of Gilbert officials are trying to prepare for: right now, the town estimates that roughly one-third of Gilbert’s population are children. As they age and begin, say, starting college or joining the military, many of them won’t necessarily stay in Gilbert—resulting in a potentially significant population decrease. At the same time, Banger said, the remaining population will mostly be reaching retirement age. That combination of factors, in turn, could result in a drop in retail business activity.
“Unless we’re continuing to keep an influx of new workers coming into our community, it can make it more challenging for this community to be a place of employment for them because now they can’t draw the workforce they need,” Banger said.
Banger said that this sort of situation is something many growing communities are currently facing—and something the town wants to avoid by making strategic investments in the community.
“We’re trying to learn those lessons from them of what could be done differently, what should be done differently to create that demand for this community, that competitive advantage for Gilbert… not just today, but for 20 years from now,” Banger said.
“Gilbert’s going to be just fine tomorrow, but I’m focused… in five, ten and fifteen years, what does that look like?” said Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels. “How can we be making sound policy decisions, sound financial decisions today to ensure that future success?”
One key area of focus is the town’s infrastructure, Banger said, which is crucial to attracting businesses. According to Banger, about 50 percent of it—everything from roads to water and sewer pipes—was installed during a period of explosive growth between 1995 and 2005.
Understanding the life cycle of that infrastructure—and the scope of any potential future repairs that might be needed as it ages—is crucial to adequately plan for the future, he said.
“I think what often happens is you wake up one day and you realize you’ve got to make some substantial reinvestments in your infrastructure,” Banger said. “And there’s a good chance we could have less revenues to deal with that, because of the drop in population, which creates the drop in revenues to our businesses.”
In other words, strategically maintaining existing infrastructure over the next few decades will be crucial to prevent the deterioration of those assets. Otherwise, degrading infrastructure quality could theoretically compound into a bigger, more expensive issue over time, and affect things like property values and the viability of local businesses.
Avoiding that sort of spiraling situation is a big part of what the City of the Future strategic initiative is all about but it’s also about pursuing innovative growth.
A recent example is Gilbert’s focus on creating streamlined processes for the installation of 5G technology. That resulted in CTIA, a trade organization that represents the wireless industry, recognizing Mayor Daniels as the nation’s first “5G Wireless Champion.”
“I can tell you that from a community-wide standpoint we are absolutely poised and ready for the future success of our community,” Daniels said.