Mike Sunnucks with the Phoenix Business Journal had a great article on the leadership of Mesa Mayor Scott Smith in keeping the Cubs in Arizona.
We are grateful to have worked with Mayor Smith and appreciate the leadership he brings to Mesa and Arizona.
The past few years have been problematic for a number of Valley cities and their mayors.
Outgoing Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon had to deal with controversies involving police kidnapping statistics and difficult personal matters; and Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs has been fighting against a proposed casino near University of Phoenix Stadium and struggling to keep the Phoenix Coyotes in town.
And most Valley mayors have had to grapple with the real estate meltdown and the economic strain on tax revenue and budgets in their respective cities.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, however, is a bit of an exception. While he has faced the wobbly economy and real estate market, he also has a few big wins under his belt.
Smith helped bring a Republican presidential debate slated to be on CNN in February to the Mesa Arts Center. Traditionally, big political debates in the state have been held in downtown Phoenix or at Arizona State University in Tempe. Smith successfully impressed upon CNN executives and the Arizona Republican Party that the East Valley is a conservative bastion and the $98 million, city-owned arts center is a suitable venue. The CNN debate is set for Feb. 22 in Mesa during a key time for the GOP presidential race.
The other big feather in his cap is getting those same conservative Mesa voters to approve a $99 million city financing deal to build a new Cactus League Spring Training ballpark for the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs threatened to move to Naples, Fla., if it didn’t get a new ballpark to replace the it’s home at the older HoHoKam Stadium.
The Cubs, Mesa and Major League Baseball first tried to get the new stadium funded via a charge on other Cactus League tickets and a new surcharge on car rentals in the county. But that idea ran into opposition from other teams, including the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox, and was nixed in the Arizona Legislature.
Smith and the team then crafted a new plan last year that asked conservative voters to hike Mesa hotel bed taxes, sell some city-owned Pinal County land and access municipal construction funds. Voters approved the measure, which has paved the way for hotels and restaurants to sprout up around the new stadium, which is expected to open for play in 2014.
“Development will center on entertainment, restaurants and perhaps a resort hotel,” Smith said.
The Cubs stadium deal earned Smith accolades from the Cubs and from his constituents, too.
“Without Scott Smith’s leadership, the Cubs would be packing their bags for Florida and the Valley economy would be severely wounded,” said Robert Johnson, vice president of public affairs for the HighGround Inc. lobbying firm. HighGround ran the “Yes” campaign for the new Cubs stadium.
Cubs Vice President Mike Lufrano agreed. He said Smith was the key front-man in convincing Mesa voters to approve the stadium deal in a down economy.
“He’s a leader,” Lufrano said. “He knows how to make it happen.”
Johnson said he liked Smith’s involvement in the campaign and the fact that the mayor wasn’t a micro-manager — a rare trait for many city leaders.
“He met personally with every group of voters willing to debate the issue. He pitched the city’s plan everywhere he went. He also allowed the campaign to do its job, which is rare in a politician when the stakes are as high as they were for Mesa and the Valley economy,” Johnson said.
Smith, 55, was born in Tucson the youngest of three children. He grew up in Mesa and played basketball at Westwood High School before getting an accounting degree from Brigham Young University. He also has an MBA and a law degree from Arizona State University. He was elected mayor of Mesa in 2008.
The mayor’s post is Smith’s first elected office after working 30 years in the private sector for financial consulting and home building companies. Smith describes his leadership style as more private sector — aka General Electric’s Jack Welch — than politics.
“I try to put people above all, think big, defy conventional thought, avoid assumed barriers, define a clear vision or objective and then let talented people do great work,” Smith said.
Peter Sterling, president of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, said Smith’s business background and leadership style also helped Mesa attract a First Solar Inc. production plant that eventually could employ as many as 600 workers.
“He’s turned this city into one of the most business-friendly in the state,” he said.
Not everyone liked the first Cubs stadium deal and not everyone likes the new plan for the city pay $99 million toward a new ballpark at the Loop 101 and 202 freeways.
The Goldwater Institute watchdog group is eyeing Mesa’s deal with the Cubs, arguing the team needs to provide some financial guarantees or bring more money to the table. Goldwat er attorney Carrie Ann Sitren said while Mesa is putting $99 million toward the deal, the Cubs only will pay $4 million in rent for the ballpark.
“The city must demand more from the Cubs,” she said.
Goldwater is not going to sue Mesa over the Cubs deal, but the conservative think tank is encouraging taxpayers to challenge the deal on the grounds that it might violate the Arizona Constitution’s gift clause.
Smith counters that the Cubs deal is legal under state law and is good for Mesa taxpayers. He also said sports are not the end all, be all of the East Valley economy, pointing to health care, aerospace, technology and the growth of Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport as real keys to the economic rebound and future.
“Losing the Cubs to Florida would have been a huge loss but not the end of the world,” he said.
Mike Sunnucks writes about politics, law, airlines, sports business and the economy.