In the winter of 2011, as Mesa was just crawling out from under the wreckage of the Great Recession, the city decided it wanted to be something it had never been before:

A college town.

That’s not to say Mesa had no place for kids to go after high school. It already had a robust community college, the burgeoning Polytechnic campus of Arizona State University and A.T. Still University, which specializes in health-care fields.

But what it lacked was the kind of small liberal-arts college you’ll find within a stone’s throw of almost anyone living in the Midwest or East. Often dating to the 19th century or even earlier, those kinds of schools never took root in Arizona as the state leapt from the Wild West to the Space Age in the blink of history’s eye.

Scott Smith noticed the gap, oddly enough, when he was blowing whistles as a high-school basketball ref.

Smith, Mesa’s mayor 2008-14, said it irked him that high-school refs in Arizona had few options above that level to develop their skills. That led him to ponder the lack of diversity in the state’s higher education portfolio, and whether Mesa could do something about it.

His musings meshed with Mesa’s decades-long effort to revive a downtown that had fallen on hard times after shoppers deserted Main Street for suburban malls.

“As we were developing a downtown strategy we said, ‘what are the two things that we think will bring people into a city center to live?’” Smith said. “And the things that came to us were a healthcare facility and a college. Those places bring people to live and to stay.”

Since it didn’t seem likely that a college in downtown Mesa would spring up on its own, the city hit on a strategy of trying to convince existing colleges and universities to set up branch campuses here.

“I figured one way we could do that was to take somebody whose growth was limited where they were, geographically and population-wise, and present them with what I believed was a wide-open, empty palette,” Smith recalled.

The hope was to create options for students who didn’t want to attend one of Arizona’s three big state universities but who also didn’t want to have to leave the state for a liberal-arts education.

“I had no idea whether it would succeed. This was a leap of faith,” Smith said.

The spade work fell to Mesa’s economic development department, and mostly on the shoulders of Jaye O’Donnell, who had recently joined the city.

“We looked at it as an economic development recruitment project,” said O’Donnell, now Mesa’s assistant economic development director. “How would we attract an industry, and what would be the business case that we could make?”

Before making Mesa’s sales pitch, O’Donnell and other staffers plunged into research, surveying Arizona’s educational landscape and quizzing students and parents about what they wanted to see here. They also queried students who had left Arizona to find out why.

O’Donnell said she initially was skeptical about the need.

But “the research proved that we did have gaps and we certainly could attract additional universities and colleges,” she said. “We wanted colleges that were considered to be legacy institutions that had a history of tradition and that small, private-college feel.”

With that information in hand, Mesa sent letters to more than 1,000 colleges and universities, inviting them to submit proposals for branches in Mesa.

Meanwhile, in Lisle, Ill., Benedictine University was looking to expand beyond Illinois for the first time since its founding in 1887.

“We really were looking to go west,” said Charles Gregory, Benedictine’s current president. “We just didn’t know where. We were looking ahead at the demographics. The demographics in the Midwest … was going to be stable, but it wasn’t going to grow. The big growth was going to take place in the South and the Southwest.”

Benedictine jumped at the chance when Mesa’s solicitation arrived, as did several other schools.

“In the end we had 12 to 14 colleges actually visit the city of Mesa on a site tour,” O’Donnell said. “Then we wound up with five colleges and universities coming to Mesa to set up shop.”

Benedictine was the first, announcing a deal with Mesa in 2012 and opening its campus a year later.

Gregory was the university’s point man in early negotiations with the city. “I liked the vision very much from the mayor at that time and also the present Mayor (John) Giles,” Gregory said. “It resonated with what we are about. It’s about the community … It was a natural fit.”

Benedictine was followed in short order by Westminster College, Wilkes University, Albright College and Upper Iowa University.

Of the five, however, only Benedictine has set up the sort of campus Mesa envisioned, operating out of the historic South Side Hospital building at 225 E. Main St.

Upper Iowa maintains a presence with a nursing program in conjunction with the East Valley Institute of Technology. The other three left Mesa altogether within a year or two of trying to establish a beachhead here, and reality has fallen far short of the initial estimates of up to 3,000 students in downtown Mesa by 2018.

The effort was not cheap for Mesa.

Renovating the old hospital building, which in later years had been used to administer social services, cost the city $10 million. To accommodate Westminster and Wilkes, Mesa redid the former courthouse at 245 W. 2nd St. for $6 million.

The money came from Mesa’s economic development fund, which had been fattened by the sale of land in Pinal County that Mesa purchased for its water rights in the 1980s. No voter approval was required.

Despite the withdrawal of Westminster and Wilkes, Smith defends the expenditure on the courthouse building, now known as the Mesa Center for Higher Education. Benedictine now uses part of the building, and other space there is occupied by LaunchPoint, a city-run incubator for small businesses.

For O’Donnell and Smith, Benedictine’s success overshadows the disappointment Mesa felt when the other three colleges left.

“The quality of life has improved. We’ve achieved a goal of bringing diversity to the higher education fabric in Mesa,” O’Donnell said.

The addition of a high-tech campus of ASU, now under construction just north of city hall, will solidify downtown’s status as an education hub.

Gregory said setting up in Mesa wasn’t the slam dunk he expected. Projections for the first semester were for up to 150 students, but he said, “When we opened up the doors, I think 68 kids showed up.”

He added, “I realized that at that time even though we probably had a 125-year history back here in Lisle, we were still new out there. So, we started looking at how we were approaching this. And it really brought us back to our mission and our values and what we were about.”

Benedictine reported 537 students at its Mesa campus this fall, with 307 of them participating in some form of athletics. Most come from a 40-mile radius of Mesa, but 28 states and several foreign countries are represented in the student body.

O’Donnell said Benedictine’s Mesa campus has handed out $28 million in scholarships for its Mesa students over the past seven years – $5.2 million of that this academic year alone.

And the university made a substantial investment in Mesa’s historical heritage by renovating the 1894-vintage Alhambra Hotel for use as a dorm.

Now, Gregory said, “We think our institution out there (in Mesa) is really going to be one of the flagships for the whole Southwest for Catholic higher education.”

Smith said Benedictine’s success in Mesa may have resulted from several factors. Based in the Chicago area, it was used to competing in an urban environment. And it was committed to Mesa as part of its long-term strategy.

For most of the colleges that did try to settle in Mesa, Smith said, “It just turned out to be a bigger drain than they were prepared for. Whereas Benedictine, I think, knew more what they were getting into.”

Ten years down the road, O’Donnell sees the college-recruitment effort as a personal milestone.

“This project and this program, “she said, “will always be one of my favorites and one that I consider to be the most rewarding out of my career in economic development.”

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