Story and Photos by Laurie Merrill
GCU News Bureau
Grand Canyon University President Brian Mueller and a cadre of West Valley economic experts Thursday enthusiastically extolled the tremendous growth and rapid change in a region that has long since shed its outdated image of sleepy retirement mecca or forgotten inner city.
“The West Valley is about to burst out of its bubble on so many fronts,” said Brian Friedman, Glendale’s director of the Office of Economic Development.
Friedman provided a timely punctuation mark: He announced that the Alaska Federal Credit Union had just purchased a 186,000-square-foot office building, the largest remaining empty office space in Glendale.
“This is really amazing for us,” Friedman said.
Friedman was among panelists on the West Valley Economic Development Forum that was held in a shining example of revitalization: GCU’s new, 325,000-square-foot, four-story office building, which stands with the new GCU Hotel, Canyon 49 Grill, future business innovation center and four-story garage on a once-decrepit corner.
Other panelists were Sintra Hoffman, Westmarc president and CEO, Jeanine Jerkovic, Surprise economic development director, Michelle Lawrie, Goodyear economic development director, and Kevin Sullivan, Arizona Commerce Authority senior vice president.
Phoenix Business Journal managing editor Patrick O’Grady moderated and publisher Ray Shey introduced Mueller — who was the keynote speaker.
If the panel was a West Valley pep rally, then Mueller was head cheerleader.
In describing how GCU’s multi-hundred-million dollar investment is lifting up the neighborhood, Mueller gave an address so rousing that his fellow speakers said they should put him in front of any business considering relocating here.
He listed a cornucopia of positive results, including partnerships with the Phoenix Police Department and Habitat for Humanity, which have helped increase property values by 30 percent and decrease crime rates another 30 percent.
The University has exploded from approximately 900 students on the ground campus in 2008 to nearly 17,500 today, employs 9,500 workers and is in the throes of a massive expansion project on its nearly 300-acre campus.
But one of Mueller's proudest efforts is with Alhambra High School, the once D-minus school across the street.
It started in 2013, when then-Alhambra principal Claudio Coria met with Mueller to discuss the challenges at the school, where 82 percent of the student body is Hispanic and more than 90 percent fall below the federal poverty level.
From that conversation, the Learning Lounge on GCU's campus was opened to provide free tutoring and mentoring to any Alhambra student who seeks academic assistance. The concept exploded and within three years Alhambra went from a D-minus school to being nine points away from a B rating. And on Tuesday, Alhambra celebrated becoming one of seven Arizona schools to receive a Beat the Odds Gold Award. “They met the gold standard,” Mueller said.
Today, students from 55 inner-city K-12 schools receive help in the Learning Lounge from more than 1,200 GCU students. Further, to help scale the program, the Students Inspiring Students scholarship program was created to award 100 full-tuition scholarships each year to high school seniors seeking help in the Lounge. In return, scholarship recipients pay it forward in college by providing 100 hours of tutoring to the next generation of students behind them.
Several panelists noted how impressed they were with GCU’s new commercial hub at 27th Avenue and the metamorphosis of Camelback Road.
The University helps provide another selling point to businesses wishing to relocate: An educated workforce, one of several topics the panel discussed.
More than 69 percent of West Valley residents commute to Phoenix, Hoffman said, and “our goal is to bring our residents home and to provide jobs for them.”
Any employer who questions the availability of a West Valley workforce need only look at the clogged highways during rush hour, Friedman said.
More than 20 companies are currently considering relocating to the area, Sullivan said. “It’s a misnomer that the West Valley is less desirable. It’s not, and it’s all about the workforce.”
“There are some strange perceptions, that the West Valley is far away, that we don’t have the workforce, that it isn’t as high quality and that it’s aging,” Jerkovic said. “Now it’s vibrant and young and so many things are happening.”
The Arizona Cardinals, the growth of GCU and other businesses, an emphasis on entrepreneurship and the younger age of residents shows this is a boom area, she said. Of the 1.5 million people in the West Valley, 58 percent are workforce age.
In short, Jerkovic said, “we have an embarrassment of riches.”
“Glendale is a college town,” Friedman said, referring to the proximity to GCU among other pluses. “The workforce is here. We’re training them, and they’re smart.”
Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or [email protected]