Christine Mackay remembers the day that was Phoenix’ rise-and-shine moment.
It was Super Bowl 2015, and Phoenix was hosting. She’d been in office as community and economic development director since August 2014, having moved from the economic development director job in Chandler, Arizona.
The game drew more than 250,000 residents of greater Phoenix to a downtown that had transformed. For some, it was their first time in the central city in a decade.
“The very next weekend,” Mackay says, “downtown was a new place.”
That turning point was a long time in the making. It was the culmination of key decisions to install light rail, bring key components of the Arizona State University campus to downtown, cultivate a live-work infrastructure and invest in entrepreneurship.
That’s what led startups like Tuft & Needle and Double Dutch to opt for Phoenix over the Bay Area. Their arrival sets up Phoenix to be a magnet for “Second City” CEOs – founders who spin out from the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial ecosystem and create new economic focal points that attract talent, capital and vibrant urban communities.
In his February 2016 announcement video, Double Dutch CEO and co-founder Lawrence Coburn cited these driving factors in the decision to open a second office in Phoenix: access to talent, the ease of exporting his company culture and the pure fact of the feel of downtown Phoenix. “You could feel the energy, you could feel the buzz,” he says. Of the significance of the decision in the life of the company, he says, “it feels like a graduation moment.”
Tuft & Needle founders wrote on Thought Catalog in April 2016, “We’re not the only ones to have discovered the gem that is Phoenix,” noting InfusionSoft, LifeLock, WebPT, Parchment, PureChat and Giftcard Zen.
It has a huge impact when CEOs speak on the CEO-to-CEO level, Mackay says.
All of which is welcome. “It’s an incredibly vibrant city. This quiet big city has woken up.”
What’s going on in downtown Phoenix is something that cities across America are looking to emulate. Coming in as you did in 2014, it looks like great timing. What happened?
On downtown, it’s the culmination of years of effort. I have to giggle. It’s an overnight success that took 15 years, with a lot of very smart people making the right decisions.
I don’t want to take credit. They already had a focus on it. I beefed up what they already had. As light rail came in, a renaissance came to downtown. More people were living downtown, which brought that synergistic feel to downtown, allowing for a lot of spontaneous collisions. We had a lot of thought leaders really leading the effort and our job was supporting them.
You already had made some strategic moves – collaborating with Arizona State University to locate its health care, law, public service and journalism schools downtown, identifying advanced manufacturing, aerospace and defense as sectors you wanted to cultivate. But how did entrepreneurship come into play?
In our pillars of economic development, entrepreneurship wasn’t anything people put as one of the pillars. Now entrepreneurship is the prime focus for Phoenix, driving the next generation community. A lot of it came from Co+Hoots founder Jenny Poon, who started an incubator and accelerator, really downtown Phoenix’s first. Jenny was that pioneer and thought leader in making entrepreneurship cool. Her constant message to elected officials was how important this was. Another one is Seed•Spot’s Courtney Klein. They are two powerful, thought-provoking women.
That effort sure has paid off – that is, if CEOs are listening to Tuft & Needle, whose founders recently posted “If You’re Building a Startup, You Need to Move to Phoenix,” on Thought Catalog, about why they resisted the siren call of Silicon Valley and why they’re ecstatic about choosing Phoenix. They cited the lower cost of living, lower cost of doing business, the business climate and a host of alluring intangibles that included low traffic, easy airport connections, major league sports and “unthinkable diversity.”
I call that a love letter to Phoenix. Here is this great thought-provoking company that disrupted the mattress industry – now a $100 million company.
“Live here, work here” seems to be the vision coming into place, and with the recent news about a downtown grocery store, which gives the ecosystem a solid anchor. How will this fuel economic momentum?
The single most important thing we do is getting people to live in the central city. As companies look for opportunities to expand, they ask, “Where am I going to find my workforce, where am I going to live?” Then it’s, where will their kids go to school, where will they buy their groceries.
Are we in the era of the rise of cities?
Absolutely. As people move into the central city, they don’t want their living room to be the living room in their house. They want it to be the city. … We can offer this great urban lifestyle. Even a suburban girl like me has come to realize I want an urban lifestyle. I don’t want a 45-minute commute. I want 100 restaurants.
The wind was at your back when you came in, but what was your biggest challenge, and how did you address it?
It was the quietest big city I’d ever met. So brokers and site selectors weren’t picking the city. They had no idea of the depth of opportunities that existed. At first, we focused on getting out to tell the story about what was going on in the central city. “Phoenix is Hot” is our marketing campaign. “Phoenix is so hot, it’s cool.” It’s not tired. It’s not trite. This is a big, bold city.
What feels incomplete to you?
Downtown still has a lot of vacant lots. We’re filling up with office buildings and getting the jobs, but more residential is going to be key. We have to work every day so downtown remains relevant and vibrant.
What’s on your wish list?
Retail amenities, a hardware store. Outdoor spaces – music festivals, food festivals, a farmers’ market. And at the top of that list is continuing to drive significant jobs into the downtown market so people aren’t doing a reverse commute. It has to be a wide range of jobs. It can’t just be tech, law and financial services.
Of course, you aren’t only working on restoring vibrance to downtown Phoenix. You’ve got Maryvale, South Phoenix and more. How does this picture fit together?
We have 13 employment corridors. Each employment corridor has its own personality, a lifestyle for each of its citizens. I’m never losing sight of the 13 corridors. I’m in all 13 at least once a week. I put a lot of miles on my car.
How has your background in commercial real estate shaped the way you approach your job?
We understand the pinch points for companies. We understand what it takes to make a transaction happen. She who gets to the deal first gets the deal.
Everyone in a new position has a learning curve, even blind spots. What did you not see at first but now think is important to building a thriving downtown economy?
My blind spot was that I did not understand urban when I came to Phoenix. I’d been a suburban economic development director. A dense project was five stories on 18 acres with parking. Now I understand how to maximize land use. I appreciate the engineering marvels of urban parking, with 300 people in a high-density residence above that. Now I’m bringing it all together so it’s a win for everybody.
Funny story, my office is on the 20th floor. One day, I said to my boss (about a project), “You know what that site should be …?” He said, “I’ve converted you. You’re an urban economic development director now.”
What is the biggest hindrance you see in helping Phoenix thrive now? What would you wave away with a magic wand if you could?
Phoenix is a little disconnected. We’re divided by a river (the Salt River). Most of the year it’s a dry riverbed. The original town site of the Phoenix metro area is where the rail came through, where the river runs through, where the Hohokam Indians settled at the high spot on the river.
From back in the early settler days of the 1900s, there are landfills and gravel pits, some very heavy unattractive industrial uses along the river. I’d fix those with a magic wand.
Land development, along with the light rail extension to South Phoenix, would connect communities like Laveen and Ahwatukee, the South Mountain region, to downtown. What effect would that have on the social fabric of the city?
It’s incredibly important to connect those communities back to the city as a whole. It allows them to thrive. That river, as a railroad does, as a freeway does, it bisects a community. No matter how much I work as a developer, if there is a mental barrier people have to cross through, (they don’t). Unless I make an effort on that barrier. Unless I make that area so attractive and appealing. Here in 2017 that will be a huge focus of my team.