The East Valley in the early 1980s was starkly different from what it is today.
The region was the 90-pound weakling to Phoenix. Major traffic arteries beyond County Club Drive were almost nonexistent. Cities fought over scant opportunities for development. The Pentagon was letting Williams Air Force Base die a slow death.
Amid this bleak and unpromising scene, a small group of business executives began meeting in 1982 at the Mesa Holiday Inn – then an exciting addition to a region dominated by cut-rate motels.
They formed the East Valley Partnership because they saw the region as a land of opportunity unrealized.
Some of those executives gathered two weeks ago at the same Holiday Inn to reminisce over the battles and the struggles that helped make the region what it is today.
Six men and two women who chaired the East Valley Partnership board at various times over the last 35 years were joined by its two former directors and a legendary former county supervisor and legislator who had worked closely with them all.
Segments of their conversation will be aired during the partnership’s 35th anniversary celebration at its annual organizational meeting in June.
The executives, many of whom are retired from their jobs but still active in the community, offered an informal timeline of the East Valley’s evolution – and a look at the challenges the region faces if that evolution is to continue over the next 35 years.
While they were asked to talk about their one-year term at the helm, many had been with the partnership since its inception and recalled that challenges over the last 3½ decades.
And they grew the partnership to include a broad spectrum of education, business and community leaders.
Countering Phoenix’s Clout
“One of the reasons the partnership was first born was that we in the East Valley weren’t getting any respect,” said Joannie Flatt, a public relations specialist and one of the leaders in the campaign that produced the Mesa Arts Center.
She and several other partnership leaders recalled how they lobbied to get an East Valley representative on the state Transportation Board, a five-member panel that exercises a huge influence on what highway projects get funded in Arizona.
“The big issue back in 1983 the Phoenix clout,” recalled Mesa attorney David Udall. “We were the East Valley nobodies. We needed to develop clout. Our principal function was to become a counterbalance to Phoenix clout.”
Looming large over the conversation were the late supermarket magnate Eddie Basha and the late Charles “Chuck” Walheim, a former publisher of the old Mesa Tribune who died three years ago.
Both men drove the partnership to push for more political influence on state boards so that more highway money would flow into the region.
“The East Valley had no freeways, no courthouse,” said Tom Freestone, a former Maricopa County supervisor and judge who was so busy he had no time to formally join the partnership.
Nevertheless, he worked closely with Basha and the partnership on a wide range of issues, such as securing a second East Valley seat on the five-member county board of supervisors.
It paid off.
When a judge told a Mesa official that it would be “over his dead body” that the region would get a permanent full-time court so citizens and police weren’t forced to travel to Phoenix, Freestone’s reaction changed the jurist’s mind.
“I said, ‘Fine, then the courts won’t be getting any more money,’” recalled Freestone, whose board controlled the judges’ purse strings.
Base Closing Poses Challenge
Freestone also recalled how East Valley cities would squabble – to the region’s detriment – over projects and potential large employers.
“We had to neutralize the situation so we could get things done. The towns were at rivalry,” he said.
A big challenge – and opportunity – to the East Valley’s growth came in 1991 when the Pentagon closed Williams Air Force Base.
Cattle rancher Chuck Backus recalled how the then-new Gov. Fife Symington asked him to join a committee to study its reuse.
That study eventually produced two landmark developments for the far East Valley – the birth of Williams Gateway Airport and Arizona State University’s Polytechnic Campus, both of which today are major economic centers for the region.
Kerry Dunne, the partnership’s first executive director, recalled how Walheim in the 1990s saw how Japan’s economy was thriving, so he had an idea to lure Japanese investments to the region.
Walheim arranged for America West Airlines to supply a 747 that flew to Japan.
“He filled it with Japanese investors and when they landed at Sky Harbor, every company that had a helicopter loaned it for us to take them for a tour of the East Valley,” Dunne said, adding:
“Then we took them to Superstition Springs Golf Course and it looked like a scene from ‘Apocalypse Now’ with all these helicopters coming in.”
Heightened Economic Focus
Former Mesa Schools superintendent Jim Zaharis recalled an equally strong campaign “to get the movie industry here.”
“We really tried to bring the movie industry here,” Zaharis said. “We found people were living here and commuting to the West Coast.