Gilbert turns 100, tries to retain small town feel as it tops 250,000 residents
Source: Arizona Republic | Alison Steinbach
In 100 years, the hay-shipping capital of the world grew into the largest town in America.
A 500-person rural outcrop southeast of Phoenix was incorporated as an Arizona town named Gilbert in July 1920.
Today, Gilbert is a growing suburb with more than 250,000 residents. Its population has more than doubled since 2000, and it’s officially the most populous “town” in the country, according to data from the US Census Bureau.
Although Gilbert is among the largest communities in metro Phoenix and ranks among the 100 largest in the country, local leaders have fought to hold on to that small-town appeal.
But as the Valley has grown faster than anywhere in the nation, Gilbert has transformed, too. Farm fields have become strip malls, manufacturing bays and sprawling housing developments.
Or as 30-year Gilbert resident Lillian Swatek summarizes the town’s growth: more of everything.
“More cars, more traffic, more restaurants, more everything; it’s just exploded,” the 56-year-old Swatek said.
Gilbert is nothing like the small town it was, but as the community celebrates its centennial, residents hope it hasn’t strayed too far from its roots.
2,000 to 250,000 residents in 50 years
The town’s population boom is eye-popping, even by Arizona standards.
In 1970, Gilbert had some 2,000 residents. By 1990, census data shows that jumped to nearly 30,000.
Ten years later, Gilbert hit more than 115,000 residents, and climbed to 208,000 in 2010. Between 2000 and 2010, homes in Gilbert doubled, according to the town.
Gilbert leaders expect approximately 350,000 residents to call the town home once fully built out, in another decade or so.
Large swaths of undeveloped land fueled the town’s expansive growth. Gilbert annexed approximately 50 square miles of neighboring county land in the 1970s and the boom began, according to town documents.
Town officials bought its first police dispatch equipment in 1985, allowing Gilbert to dispatch police instead of relying on Maricopa County, according to a book on Gilbert history.The Gilbert Fire Department began operations eight years later.
Don Skousen, 85, has lived in Gilbert since 1971. He sat on the school board for 20 years, taught at Mesa Community College and served on the Town Council in the early 2000s.
Growing up in Chandler, Skousen said Gilbert was the little town next door — “just kind of a fun little place to laugh at and drive through once in a while because there wasn’t much going on.”
Living through the town’s growth decades, and playing a role in shaping policy, was incredible, Skousen said.
“I think we were surprised at how quickly it became a place to be,” he said. “I was sitting in the middle of it and didn’t realize what was going on.”
Gilbert was changing so fast it was hard to follow everything and predict what might come next.
“The growth has been so rapid and so phenomenal,” Skousen said.
Small town or big city?
As Gilbert became “more of everything” as Swatek describes, leaders have sought to retain its small town feel in reality and not just in name.
Town leaders have sunk millions into transforming the original town site into the Heritage District, a few blocks of shops and restaurants that, COVID-19 aside, draw bustling crowds daily. Gilbert calls those 0.3 square miles “the center and symbolic heart of the community.”
Anchored by the iconic Gilbert water tower, the Heritage District features an array of original restaurants, local chains and outdoor spaces — it feels like a traditional town center.
But drive further, and the quaint, walkable town square expands into miles of strip malls, large suburban home communities and traffic.
Residents have a range of opinions on what Gilbert has become and whether, 100 years later, it has retained its town-like charm.
Skousen, who witnessed all the changes, said Gilbert still feels small, just not quite as small as he knew it decades ago.
“It’s a homey little town,” he said, adding that maybe it requires looking closer to find that. “I still perceive it as a small-town feel in a pretty large city.”
Swatek said when she first moved from Mesa to Gilbert 30 years ago, Gilbert “maybe” felt like a small town. “But not for a long time because it’s gotten so big.”
Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels said she believes what makes the town feel small, regardless of population, is its sense of community.
“As much as Gilbert has grown, it still has the small-town, sense of community feel and atmosphere,” she said. “The spirit of Gilbert is all about connecting with the community whether that’s through neighborhoods, schools, churches or someplace that makes people feel at home.”
Ray Ellis, 60, said raising kids in Gilbert made him feel part of a community linked to schools and youth sports.
“The thing about Gilbert is not everybody knows everybody, but you don’t feel like everybody’s a stranger,” Ellis said.
Some residents miss a time when the town was more spread out, when one could live away from people and traffic. That has become more difficult as Gilbert has grown.
“We always seemed to live on the outskirts, but then it would catch up with us and we moved further out, and then it kept catching up. It was like, ‘We’re here, nobody else move here now,'” said Cyndy Young, 57, who raised her children in Gilbert.
Despite moving several times to escape the growth, Young said Gilbert somehow still has a small town feel. She loves the downtown, the parks and that Gilbert is less busy than Phoenix. But she misses the farmland and the wide open spaces.
Cindy Taylor, 35, said her husband’s family farmed in Gilbert before houses took over. As trends shifted towards homes and population growth, they sold the farm to a commercial real estate venture and moved to farm in Texas about 10 years ago.
“I liked Gilbert because you could drive by and there were still farms, but there’s few and far between now,” Taylor said. “It does feel like a big city.”
Gilbert’s 2020 General Plan, which envisions growth for the next 10 to 20 years, focuses on keeping the town a “safe, healthy, clean, attractive, family-oriented community.”
There’s an emphasis on housing and growth, continuing the trajectory of recent decades. But town planners are aware of the desire to keep a town feel in what’s become a growing city.
Senior Planner Ashlee MacDonald said it is a balance to provide amenities that will attract jobs that residents need, but “keeping some of that small town feel.”
Celebrating a centennial mid-pandemic
Gilbert’s July birthday came right in the middle of weeks of COVID-19 surges across Maricopa County and the state.
The town had a virtual birthday party with a “Gilbert Good News” video from the mayor, a lighting of the water tower, a birthday playlist and other online activities.
But a centennial-themed Fourth of July fireworks were canceled, and town staffers postponed the launch of new branding and a new logo for the town, which had been planned to coincide with the celebration.
“We want to generate as much excitement as possible around the new brand and logo and staff time and resources have been largely dedicated to COVID-19 response since March,” town spokeswoman Jen Harrison said. “Also, we are sensitive to the fact that it didn’t feel like the right time.”
Gilbert Days, the annual parade and festivities in November, will have a centennial theme, Harrison said. But given the novel coronavirus, it’s still unclear what that will look like.
Either way, Gilbert has a lot to celebrate, the mayor, said.
“It doesn’t matter if we are a town or a city; we are Gilbert, Arizona. You have to be here and experience the spirit of Gilbert to fully understand,” Daniels said.