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How the ASU Polytechnic campus' partnerships lift all boats

Carefully cultivated connections benefit students and local community, bringing resources together and ensuring a robust workforce for region

ASU Polytechnic campus
July 06, 2021

You’re an engineer who has just moved to southeast Mesa, maybe to work at the new $20 billion Intel plants or maybe one of the three Northrop Grumman plants in the East Valley. Good school districts for your kids, nice house for your family. And your commute sure beats that daily nightmare you had in California.

Your partner gets their nails done by a woman who just opened her own salon. That cosmetologist graduated from a Mesa high school and learned the trade at the East Valley Institute of Technology. After a few years, she decided she wanted to own her own business, so she earned a business degree at Arizona State University.

Both the cosmetologist and the engineer own pools, which need maintenance. They use the same pool technician, who buys parts and supplies from a store owned by another ASU grad with a business degree. That alum is opening a second store and has dreams of starting a chain.

None of this — none at all — happened by accident. The whole scenario is the product of a lot of smart people working hard and working together — for decades — to transform an abandoned Air Force base (described by one insider as “literally nothing but cactus and tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes”) into a satellite ASU campus that punches way above its weight class and helps drive the surrounding community to becoming what it is. And ASU’s Polytechnic campus hasn’t nearly reached its full potential yet, with plans on the horizon that will help it become an even bigger contributor.

The university’s charter states it assumes “fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.”  

One way it does that is through a web of carefully cultivated partnerships. This story is a look behind the scenes at how that happens around ASU's Polytechnic campus, through the eyes of a few insiders.

The Connector

Jon Schmitt’s official title at ASU is assistant vice president for Educational Outreach and Student Services, but you’ll almost never find him at ASU’s main administration building in Tempe. He’s usually in the East Valley, attending breakfast meetings, lunches and dinners with chambers of commerce, K–12 officials, community colleges, business leaders, city officials or economic development folks.

“I focus really on the outreach,” said the Yuma native and former attorney. “Any way that I can plug in and promote Poly that's really what I do, but at the same time  ... benefit the institution as a whole.”

Denny Barney is president and CEO of the PHX East Valley Partnership, a nonprofit coalition of civic, business, education and political leaders dedicated to the economic development and promotion of the East Valley.

Barney best described what Schmitt does: He connects people and resources.

“Some people just have a gift for that,” Barney said. “Jon, aside from being super likable, his ability to connect people and resources, he sees a need, he sees a resource, he brings people together. That means going out to the business community, connecting with other partners, using that infrastructure that's at the Polytechnic (campus), for example. ... Jon thinks bigger, and he knows how to plug into the system to try to bring those resources together.”

How does this benefit ASU?

One plus one equals a lot more than two at the end of the day, Schmitt likes to say.

“That's really it,” Schmitt said. “There's just an exponential effect that when you bring people together and especially when you bring like-minded institutions that are really trying to benefit the community, benefit the state, benefit the county, benefit students, benefit families. It just has a real positive impact.”

One week last June, Schmitt had lunch with Barney and Aric Bopp, who leads the economic development efforts of ASU Knowledge Enterprise. The purpose was to figure out what 10 businesses to go in, make connections with and ask them what their workforce needs are.

“One thing for Poly, if we're going to grow that campus, it's also going to mean that we're going to need to expand programs,” Schmitt said. “And so we'll work with our academic partners as far as that goes. But if we know what the needs are in terms of our largest employers out in the area, of course that'll help to drive programming.”

Two huge developments are happening next to Poly. SkyBridge is slated to become the United States’ first inland international air logistics and joint U.S.-Mexico Customs processing hub. Both American and Mexican customs officers will operate on-site. It will serve as a direct carrier to consumers in Mexico.

Right now shipped goods from Amazon and others spend two weeks or more stuck at the border.

“If you open up air and if that growth continues, boy, that's another thing that could have a wonderful opportunity for our students, for our faculty and others,” Schmitt said.

Legacy Sports USA is planned to open just east of the airport in 2022. It will be an immense sports complex, with multiple fields and courts, training for elite athletes, and weekend basketball, soccer and baseball tournaments. It will benefit students with internships and employment and faculty with research opportunities.

There’s a saying that goes around — quoted by everyone in this story, but no one is sure who it originated with — that if it’s not happening in the East Valley, it’s not happening.

“Look at the East Valley and look at why Intel has that $20 billion expansion,” Schmitt said. “The university is key to that, but also there's a highly skilled, educated workforce and strong school districts.”

The Mayor

John Giles served on the Mesa City Council from 1996 to 2000, a few years after Williams Air Force Base was decommissioned. Now he is mayor of the city of more than half a million people.

“I remember at the time that a lot of us felt like we were the dog that caught the car,” he said. “I guess we wanted this, but what are we going to do with this thing? (The old base.) It's going to cost us a lot of money over a lot of years to take this on. ... It was literally nothing but cactus and tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes at the time, but we said that this is where we need to add employment.”

The city created the Southeast Mesa Economic Resource Forum. It’s a collaboration of major businesses, employers and industries in southeast Mesa that come together to collaborate with the city of Mesa economic development office, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and others to focus on capitalizing the former Air Force base with thousands of developable acres surrounding it.

“And that we add that to our workforce and to our education capacity and don't just squander this resource,” Giles said.

Mesa’s and ASU’s missions are the same, he said.

“Part of my job is to brag about Mesa and that's an easy thing to do, but the other part of my job is to see what we need to be better at and to try to accomplish that,” Giles said. “One of the things we need to be better at is higher education attainment. And that is clearly the mission statement of Dr. Crow and ASU: figuring out how to improve our economy, how to improve the quality of life of the people in Arizona through giving them opportunities to advance educationally.”

The easier the city makes it for ASU to have access to people who need education, the better, Giles said.

Both Polytechnic and the upcoming downtown Mesa campus give ASU the opportunity to get into the communities it needs to serve and to improve its programs with world-class facilities.

“That's a doctor's prescription for what we need to advance our economy,” Giles said.

The Educator

The East Valley Institute of Technology is a joint technological education district; its programs are available to member high schools' students. It has a downtown Mesa campus and a satellite campus on Power Road on the edge of ASU’s Polytechnic campus.

It offers education in everything from aesthetics and automotive technologies to banking, baking, construction, medical tech, plumbing, hospitality, radio production and dozens more.

Ninety-eight percent of the students who attend graduate from high school — a pretty good completion rate. Sixty-six percent of those students pursue postsecondary learning after high school. Of that 66%, 50% are working in the field in which they earned their industry certification.

“We have students in our cosmetology program that are ultimately going to wind up going to ASU and business,” said EVIT Superintendent Chad Wilson. “The idea behind it is that it's great to be a licensed cosmetologist. You can make good money working for somebody, but you can make a lot more money working for yourself. And so let's get some of those business classes, let's get some of those entrepreneurial classes and really make an opportunity to take a skill set, a trade, a passion, turn it into a paycheck, but also grow that into an opportunity to have a business. And I think ASU's a great partner in that.”

As often said by university President Michael Crow, the modern economy is based on individuals who are able to pivot and learn new skills throughout life.

“We’re going to teach them a skill,” Wilson said. “It's going to give them a paycheck, but it's also going to give them the opportunity to leverage that into learning other skills and other areas, and other ways that allow them to continue to grow as a professional. And I think ASU is a great partner in that endeavor, because I think Dr. Crow's really wise in recognizing that the economy of tomorrow is ever changing and ever shifting.”

The Power Road campus is being developed as a joint utilized space. Students can participate in EVIT programming and then go straight into ASU or one of the Maricopa community colleges. EVIT will be able to offer veterinary science lab space to ASU students at the Polytechnic campus. The same goes for engineering labs at EVIT.

It's good for EVIT students because they get to be around college-level learners. It's good for the university learners because they get to be around students who are just beginning to grow. One of the best ways to learn a new topic is to teach it or to explain it, Wilson said.

“One of the things that we realized as an organization is that the growth in the southeast section of our district is going to accelerate over the next five to 10 years. And so the ability for us to begin kind of planning on how we use that space out at Power Road in a way that is beneficial to learners, but also beneficial to the community is I think a very smart direction that Jon has helped kind of shepherd us to.”

The Business Leader

PHX East Valley Partnership President and CEO Denny Barney is an ASU law grad. Currently finishing his master’s degree at Thunderbird School of Global Management, he’s also a member of the President’s Club, a group of people committed to supporting ASU and Crow.

The East Valley Partnership was started in 1982. It was an outgrowth of some business leaders coming together and realizing they needed to have a unified voice that represents the interest of this part of the region and focuses on building the community in a way that will allow for sustainable growth into the future.

Every time someone wants to engage with the group, Barney has one question: What is the nexus to jobs?

“And obviously everybody across the country is fighting to have the right type of workforce, the whole spectrum of jobs,” he said. “Everybody says, 'OK, well, we want all the advanced manufacturing, or we want all the fintech or all the bioscience or all the aviation and aerospace or whatever the case be.' But the truth is every job's important. If you get those jobs, you're going to have all the secondary and tertiary jobs that come with it. And so we focus on jobs because we believe that the sun's going to shine 330 days a year. ... If we're going to educate people ...  we've got to have places to put them to work, to use those skills.”

That would not only be our hypothetical engineer, but the cosmetologist, the pool man and the pool supply store owner.

“To create a robust environment across the spectrum, ASU is critical to that as a leader in the educational delivery infrastructure that we have in the region,” Barney said. “Of course, housing affordability, the regulatory environment, tax policy, available real estate — all of that matters. But if they don't have the workforce, guess what? There's not enough of those other things to drive them here without the workforce. We're doing a better job at keeping them here.”

A quarter century ago, the Valley endured a perennial cycle of boom and bust, with major industries being construction and tourism. The job market today is completely different. The massive chip farms, aerospace plants and burgeoning biotech industry have completed a new composition.

“We're doing a better job of keeping people here because we have that whole spectrum of jobs that lets people plug in, use their talents and be productive here in our market,” Barney said.

When Schmitt meets with Barney, he asks, “From your perspective, what can ASU do better as a knowledge enterprise to respond to emerging needs?”

“I love hearing Dr. Crow say — I'm summarizing — that some crazy percent of the jobs of the future don't even exist today,” Barney said.

A new school focused on the future of work is set to start classes in fall 2021 on the Polytechnic campus: the School of Manufacturing Systems and Networks. Part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, it will center on industry 4.0, human-machine teaming and systems engineering. The new school will support microelectronics manufacturing — an expanding player in the Valley’s economy.

It’s just one way the campus that grew from a shuttered military station into a responsive community partner is poised to become an even larger contributor to the East Valley. And with the Polytechnic campus’ partnerships and connections, the sky’s the limit both for this former Air Force base and the communities of which it’s now very much a part.

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