How Mesa Became a College Town: Higher Education Initiative

ARTICLE | Jun 2, 2014

In 2012, the City of Mesa, Arizona announced the successful recruitment of five private, non-profit, liberal arts colleges and universities – a direct result of three years of inspired vision and strategic business attraction efforts.

One year later, Albright College, Benedictine University (BenU), Upper Iowa University, Westminster College, and Wilkes University opened physical campuses in Mesa and began offering 25 full-time undergraduate programs including Environmental Science, International Business, Health Sciences, Nutrition, Information Systems and Management, Psychology, Criminal Justice, and Business Administration and six graduate degree programs including Engineering Management, Creative Writing, and Business Administration, to name a few.

The City of Mesa’s Mayor and Council, city leaders, businesses, and community partners are striving to build Mesa as a vibrant 21st Century City of Innovation. To achieve this vision, City leadership recognized diverse educational opportunities are critical to Mesa’s success and sought to attract additional post-secondary schools offering programs of study which align with Mesa’s industries of opportunity including healthcare, aerospace, aviation, defense, tourism and technology.

Considered one of the most successful attraction strategies the City of Mesa has ever implemented, the results have garnered national media attention, earned praise from academicians, industry leaders, developers, and government officials, and has been touted as a model for innovation in higher education and public-private partnerships. The initial economic impact has started to ripple through the region, and the long-term benefits projected will be especially significant for further enhancing the region’s economy, improving Arizona’s workforce and building a better Mesa. 

To accommodate the three schools in Downtown Mesa, the City renovated and redeveloped three vacant, city-owned buildings. Altogether, more than 85,000 sq. ft. of unused space was converted into state-of-the-art classrooms, conference and community rooms, nutrition and engineering labs, academic, administrative and study spaces.

In partnership with the City of Mesa, the five legacy institutions collectively:

  • Created 44 net new full-time jobs (college and university faculty and staff);
  • Contributed more than $6.5 million of new private investment;
  • Enrolled 183 students on campuses, plus 75 students online;
  • Occupied 85,000+/- square feet of previously long-term vacant space;
  • Booked more than 840 room nights over an 18-month period in local hotels for traveling staff and vendors;
  • Created a safe, interim housing solution for undergraduate students in the Mesa Marriott hotel within walking distance of the schools Downtown. The Marriott also created student meal plans for purchase. As demand for student housing increases, plans for more traditional student housing units will be developed;
  • Created the Mesa Educates U Scholarship Program which in five years will fund more than $700,000 in tuition costs to nearly 80 Mesa residents pursuing a college degree.  Mesa Educates U Scholarships are awarded by the new institutions to Mesa residents demonstrating strong academic performance and financial need. Scholarships range from $5,000-$10,000 annually per student for the length of the student’s program; 
  • In addition, Grand Canyon University, a private Christian university headquartered in Arizona, recently purchased 100-acres with an option on 60 additional acres in east Mesa to build a new campus that will eventually serve more than 10,000 students. Classes begin in Mesa in fall 2015.

In addition, local and national job growth trends indicated a need for workers educated in liberal arts, business/financial management, technology, and health sciences. With a goal of adding more than 1,500 students to Mesa’s higher education fabric within five years, the City began working to create a cluster of new colleges and universities offering four-year or graduate degrees in Mesa, Arizona. The City of Mesa’s long-term goal is to make Mesa a “destination for education” and attract out-of-state students, which would ultimately yield an even greater economic impact to the region.

As with most businesses expanding in today’s economy, the targeted institutions faced challenges in investment capital and finding adequate, affordable space for establishing campuses. The City of Mesa was willing to leverage city-owned assets, including land and buildings prime for reuse, to provide necessary space as part of a financially viable economic and academic development partnership for qualified selected institutions. The City provided the buildings and the capital upfront for the building improvements and the schools entered into long-term lease agreements with Mesa in the previously vacant, city-owned properties. Mesa’s progressive and innovative approach provided customized solutions to make the Council’s vision a reality.

Without the vision and support of our proactive Mayor, Council, and City management and the commitment of City staff, the universities and colleges, contractors and partners this initiative would not have come to fruition. We thank our education partners, architects, construction teams, City Engineering, Planning and Zoning, Legal, Economic Development team, and countless others for their hard work and dedication to making Mesa a better community.

Watch their TLG2014 Innovation Award video

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