How GCU is helping west Phoenix turn the corner
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the March issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Rick Vacek
No day in recent memory has done more to blast out the accomplishments of Grand Canyon University than Feb. 15.
First, there was the blaring USA Today headline that morning: “The craziest fans in college basketball root for a school you’ve never heard of.” The word is out — the Havocs, GCU’s student cheer section, are national news.
But GCU’s reputation in the community got even more attention in a midday gathering to celebrate the new 27th Avenue commercial development, where Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton were among the dignitaries.
“This is a true Arizona success story,” Ducey said.
Stanton’s assessment: “Today is another major milestone in the progress of GCU. The economic impact of this university on our city and our state is indisputable.”
Renowned economist Elliott Pollack called GCU’s transformation of the campus and neighborhood “one of the true miracles that I’ve seen in the Phoenix area.” He’s been here since 1964.
And nowhere is the success and the impact more miraculous than the changes on the northeast corner of 27th Avenue and Camelback Road.
Just four years ago, the 37-acre property was home to a rundown hotel, adult shop, swap mart, used car lot and more than its share of criminal activity. Today, the bustling commercial hub now includes a four-story, 325,000-square-foot office building for 2,700 employees, the completely renovated GCU Hotel and its comfy Canyon 49 Grill, and a four-story parking garage. Still to come are a business and education innovation center and possibly more retail or hotel space.
For anyone who remembers what it used to be like, the transformation is as stunning as the before-and-after photos of someone who lost 300 pounds. It’s as if a gorilla has been lifted off the collective back of west Phoenix.
“As the governor of Arizona,” Ducey said in his speech during the gathering, “I want to recognize GCU and President Brian Mueller and all the hard-working GCU employees and the amazing students of this faith-based organization for the ideals that you have and what you’ve done to revitalize this community.”
But this isn’t just a local story. It’s not only a sports highlight. What GCU is doing has gained national attention, and not just because the Havocs have turned the basketball Game Day experience into such a spectacle. Ducey said afterward that he doesn’t hesitate to bring up the GCU model as he goes around the country.
“I love talking about not only the improvements we’re making in K-12 education, but what we’re doing in higher learning, the innovative models we have,” he said. “And I think GCU leads the pack in that discussion.”
Mueller hears it all the time, too.
“You know where it’s being talked about? It’s within the higher education setting and also in the Christian high school world because it represents a model that makes higher education affordable to all socioeconomic classes of Americans without taxpayer dollars,” he said.
“The higher ed community is really intrigued about what’s happening, how it’s happening, and whether they could replicate certain aspects of it. Everywhere I go now around the country, especially if it’s in the educational community, people have heard about Grand Canyon University.”
Jerry Colangelo, the respected business icon and former owner of the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks, is an expert at building a business from the ground up. His extensive involvement in GCU — the Colangelo College of Business is named in his honor — has helped fuel the growth, and he gets asked about it as well.
“The fact that we’ve had the success we’ve had, the growth that we’ve had, a lot of exposure for our sports program, yeah, people are very aware of what’s happening,” he said. “And it’s all positive.”
A stroll around the 27th Avenue facility, with all the new buildings and new greenery, no longer is much different than the main campus just two blocks away. Taking the employees from satellite offices in north Phoenix and Tempe and bringing them under one very large roof has united them with the campus they represent as well as with each other.
“With the addition of this lobby and restaurant space, it really feels like we’ve become part of GCU,” said Brett Cortright, general manager of the GCU Hotel and Canyon 49 Grill. “The energy and positivity that you feel when you walk through campus, I think we’ve been able to emulate that over here.”
The Grill, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, serves an average of 600 diners a day, many of them students who come over from the main campus and use their meal cards. It also features the student-run Grand Canyon Beverage Company coffee bar, live music at night and an outdoor patio complete with two cornhole courts, a giant-size Jenga and deep sofas.
When students’ parents come to visit, they can count on affordable rates ($79-$89) at a hotel that includes a resort-like pool and a firepit. But equally important is the fact that the hotel and restaurant are staffed by GCU student workers from the hospitality program and local residents who can get free tuition for themselves or their children because of their employment.
“Buildings come to life with people,” Cortright said. “You want to not only add the right people but also people who have passion for this industry. This building has absolutely come alive.”
Cortright’s bright blue eyes blaze as he talks about what this means to him. He has been at GCU for nearly two years and already has seen more changes than most workers witness in 20 years on the job. But it wasn’t as if he didn’t expect it.
“From the first time I met with Brian Mueller, he has such a knack for imparting his vision on other people,” Cortright said. “From the first time I saw the drawings and the first time I talked to him, I had a very good idea of what this place was going to look like when we were done.”
Cortright has passed on that vision to Kevin Walton, the Grill’s executive chef. “He’s a font of knowledge, a great leader, a great mentor,” said Walton, who like Cortright has extensive experience in the industry.
But Walton’s vision also extends to what he sees on the job every day.
“There’s something about GCU,” he said. “It’s amazing, just the feeling you get when you sit back and listen.”
Important words from important people
“In the private sector, we have a saying that when government gets out of the way and lets innovation do its work, we see business models that are transformative — and in this case of GCU, very unique as well.” — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey
“When it comes to public-private partnerships, Phoenix couldn’t ask for a better partner than GCU.” — Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton
“In looking at this crowd, it kind of sends chills up and down your spine to see what’s really transpired here in just this short period of time.” — Jerry Colangelo
“Any world-class city should be focused on infrastructure and, most importantly, education. GCU has been a perfect partner because they have championed both of those things.” — Phoenix councilman Daniel Valenzuela
That was one of the ideas behind the move to bring all the satellite employees together. Now, they can have lunch at the Canyon 49 Grill or, if they like, take the shuttle bus over to campus. In fact, that’s what Sarah Lakin, a University counselor, did on the day she said this:
“We feel so much more connected. I think when you feel more connected to the University, to the campus, you feel more of a sense of purpose.”
That’s exactly what Mueller was aiming for. He talked passionately to the assembled employees at the Feb. 15 event, thanking them for their dedication. He does not take it for granted.
“People are very grateful for being able to work here,” he said afterward. “The salaries are good. The benefits are really good. The fact that their kids can go to college for free is a big benefit.
“But the thing they most like and identify with is not just the mission of the University but the mission of transforming the community. That’s really important to them. People want to be part of something greater than just their own individual business.
“It’s amazing how many of our faculty and staff are participating in the Habitat for Humanity program and tutoring program and all of that. That’s the icing on the cake for them, and it’s the reason a lot of them stay here. Our turnover this year is unbelievably low. People just want to be here and stay here.”
Just as Mueller was saying that, a female employee walked past and said, “Thank you for keeping me employed.”
“Thank you for being employed,” Mueller replied.
Accomplishments come in all shapes and sizes, but this day was much more than that. Do you believe in miracles? Maybe you should.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.