‘Best lists’ are a prize for every A+ entrepreneurial city. Lately, Tempe, Arizona, seems to have a golden ticket to the land of superlatives. What’s its special magic?
To find out, says City of Tempe Economic Development Director Donna Kennedy, simply arrive one sun-splashed afternoon and watch the city change right before your eyes.
That’s the hour when the population almost doubles, when a wave of Tempe’s highly educated, highly paid workforce returns. “We’re the workforce for the region,” she says, referring to Tempe’s No. 1 export.
Then again, feast your eyes on what’s close to home.
Look out at a sparkling town lake that once was a dry riverbed, walk down the streets of Mill Avenue, hang out in a library that’s hosting small business startups, go to the arts center that incubates creative businesses. Or the BioDesign Institute on the campus of Arizona State University. Or a new incubator for fashion design.
If you’re looking for something to happen, you’ll find it: The spirit of innovation is alive here, Kennedy says.
On the occasion of this interview, Tempe placed “34 with a bullet” on Enterpreneur magazine’s 50 Best Cities for Your Startup. The week before, ASU had just been ranked the most innovative university in the United States – beating out Stanford and Massachusetts Institute for Technology from the top spots – in the 2016 U.S. News & World Report college rankings.
That’s not all. Walkscore proclaims Tempe the most walkable city in Arizona, and Kaboom! names it the most playful city in the country. Bloomberg BusinessWeek notes it’s America’s third most affordable city – and CNN Money says Arizona is the best state for entrepreneurs.
“We are on fire,” Kennedy says, and starts rattling off a list of tech and bioscience startups, as well as blue-chip companies that have located in Tempe. “We’re known for being a knowledge-based economy.”
Just this year, companies such as Amazon, ZipRecruiter, Entertainment Partners, Willis Tower Watson and Oscar, and Revel Systems have brought about 2,000 new tech jobs, she says.
But Tempe’s magic is in “our investment in infrastructure and our willingness to partner,” she adds.
Hubs of Innovation
That strategy comes out of quickly sizing up Tempe’s limitations, something Kennedy knows well because she grew up in the Valley of the Sun metro area.
When Kennedy took the job in 2013, after 12 years as program manager in the City of Phoenix Planning and Economic Development Department, she immediately saw the challenge through the eyes of an urban planner: Tempe is landlocked. At only 40 square miles, it’s hemmed in by Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa and Ahwatukee.
But limitations force innovative solutions. Which makes for fertile ground.
Like working with ASU and the City of Phoenix to put a campus in downtown Phoenix, connected by light rail.
Like building hubs of innovation, such as ASU’s BioDesign Institute, which has spun out more than a dozen companies and created an average of 50 inventions and patents a year. A second BioDesign building is under construction now.
Like starting a fashion incubator in the Tempe Arts Center and hosting fashion shows on Mill Avenue, one of Tempe’s social gathering spots.
Like rethinking libraries. They’re not just storage for books – they’re business incubators now. In September, the Business Resource and Innovation Center opened at the Tempe Public Library, providing coworking space, meeting space, mentorship, business workshops, plus all the amenities of libraries like treasure troves of business books, help with research and a cafe. “Libraries are changing,” she says.
Tempe is a tech magnet for startups and growing corporations, with nearly 15,000 working in tech. Arizona tech jobs average $100,000 in annual pay.
At the soon-to-open Tempe Innovation Hub, a tech and biomedical campus next to the Tempe Center for the Arts, not only will tech get a home, but it will connect with art spaces and trails linking it to the arts center and Town Lake pathways. Again, she says, it’s about work – and play. It’s about enjoying the place.
Sense of Place
If you want to know what Kennedy’s particular magic is, it may lie in just that: What she’s most interested in doing is building a thriving economy that aligns with Tempe’s sense of place.
Her own unique advantage as an economic development director is that she knows her top two collaborators well – ASU and the City of Phoenix.
One of them awarded her two degrees – a bachelor’s in urban planning and a master’s in urban and environmental planning. The other collaborator, she worked for.
Plus, she grew up in the area, so she knows the economic cycles. She’s been eyewitness to the real estate bust-and-boom cycles, noting the 1980s influence of the California developers on the metro landscape.
“Why are they not creating more of a sense of place?” she says she wondered. “That’s why I got into the planning and development field.”
That lens helps her see the big picture – the way the bioscience campus will interact with downtown Phoenix, the way the Tempe campus will interact with the private sector, the transportation infrastructure that includes a robust light rail system and she hopes will include a streetcar system.
Asked to name the city that’s her hero, she names another walkable city with thriving bioscience and leading-edge public transportation – San Diego, which has revitalized its downtown and warehouse district.
But one reason she counts taking the job in Tempe as one of the best decisions of her life is that Mayor Mark Mitchell and the City Council also see how vital it is to the economy to create a sense of place. “Sustainability is huge,” she says.