Massive 400-acre project unfolding at Gateway Airport The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Massive 400-acre project unfolding at Gateway Airport

January 19th, 2021 Mesa Tribune Staff
Massive 400-acre project unfolding at Gateway Airport

By Jim Walsh
Tribune Staff Writer

The Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport’s conversion into an economic powerhouse as a major regional airport is coming into sharper focus.

The latest huge piece, a 400-acre office-retail development that ultimately will include a new terminal – was unveiled last week to Mesa City Council and at a promotional meeting as officials began fleshing out plans for Gateway’s now vacant east side.

Although more details will emerge after a master developer is chosen near the end of 2021, conceptual plans for the sprawling Gateway East project include a combination of first-class office development, upscale “corporate retail’’ shopping and restaurants and industrial facilities.

It also would bring long-needed retail and entertainment options for Eastmark and other homeowners in southeast Mesa.

A video released to promote the project shows Gateway East forming a semi-circle around a new terminal. Together, they will reorient the airport to facing east toward the new State Route 24 freeway that is slowly being built.

While Gateway East will provide more employment, entertainment and economic opportunities near the Loop 202 and the new State Route 24, a new terminal at the northwest corner of Ray and Hawes roads eventually would serve major new passenger airlines attracted by the addition of a new control tower now under construction.

Gateway CEO/Executive Director J. Brian O’Neill, said the new terminal might not open for another 10 years, realizing the dream that leaders from Mesa, Gilbert, Phoenix, Queen Creek, Apache Junction and the Gila River Indian Community began envisioning in March 1994 when they took over the facility after the U.S. Air Force decommissioned it a year earlier.

O’Neill said the airport has reserved 200 acres for the new terminal and parking. The airport’s assets include three, 10,000-foot-long runaways originally built by the Air Force and improved over time.

Shea Joachim, the airport’s business development, said the site might also include a hotel and convention center.

“We are definitely looking to expand the roster of airlines that serves the airport,’’ O’Neill said during a Zoom meeting intended to attract potential master developers.

He said negotiations are underway with some potential passenger carriers that would establish expanded service to hubs around the country, linking travelers to a myriad of destinations.

“We think it would be a game changer for East Valley,’’ O’Neill said.

He said the present terminal on the airport’s west side still has additional gates available, with budget-oriented Allegiant Airlines serving as the primary carrier. WestJet and Swoop serve the Canadian market.

Additional demand from airlines would be required to justify the construction of the new terminal, with the present terminal likely re-purposed for general aviation, O’Neill said.

Gateway’s passenger service at the moment is focused on leisure travelers using non-stop flights to visit friends, family and vacation destinations, he said.

“It’s nice to see these pieces that were in the sky as priorities 25 years ago come into reality,’’ Mesa Mayor John Giles said. “I think it’s going to be a quality-of-life enhancement for all the people living out there.’’

“When the terminal is built on the east side, it will be a red-letter day,’’ Giles said, adding that two or three additional carriers are needed to realize that dream. “It’s setting the stage for that.’’

In the nearer term, “the quality of life of residents out there will take a giant step forward’’ when Gateway East opens, providing the dining and shopping residents have been craving and the city with much-needed additional sales tax revenue, Giles said.

He said that many people who live in Eastmark and other residential developments in East Mesa would love to have an office near their home, rather than driving an hour to get to work.

“It’s a perfect piece of the puzzle,’’ said Mesa Councilman Kevin Thompson, who represents the area. “This is very important not only for the airport but for District 6 and the city as well. It’s going to be a huge generator of revenue. It will help make Gateway a destination location.’’

Prior to marketing Gateway East, the airport has attracted numerous aeronautical developments to the west side of the airport, with 500,000 square feet of space currently under construction, O’Neill said.

SkyBridge, the highest profile of these projects, features a unique customs relationship between the U.S. and Mexico that is intended to speed and simplify shipments of goods between the two countries.

The airport generated 1.8 million passengers last year, but ridership is down about 30 percent – far less of a decline than many other airports that have experienced up to an 80 percent drop during the pandemic, O’Neill said.

“This is an airport whose time has come,’’ O’Neill told the City Council. “The Phoenix East Valley is taking off, no pun intended, and the airport is going along with it.’’

With more people gradually getting vaccinated against COVID this year, “we’re really optimistic about the remainder of 2021,’’ O’Neill said.

Ryan Smith, an airport spokesman, said the new terminal likely would be built in three phases, starting with 10-14 gates.

O’Neill and Joachim emphasized that Gateway East is a non-aeronautical development, in contrast to the new terminal and aeronautical businesses on the west side.

A bond issue approved by Mesa voters last year lays the foundation for Gateway East, creating a Williams Field Road exit off State Route 24 that will link up with the new development.

An exit at Ray Road and the Loop 202 will eventually funnel traffic to the new terminal, minimizing local traffic, Smith said.

Jack Sellers, chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, said the extension of Proposition 400 would help supply the infrastructure needed to unlock the full potential of Gateway in the next decade.

Proposition 400, a ½ cent sale tax, expires in 2025 and discussions are underway to create the best new funding source possible, with fuel sales dropping from the advent of electric and hybrid cars, he said.

Maricopa County is committed to doing everything possible to assist in the airport’s evolution, Sellers said, as outdated county roads get replaced by much larger roads needed for growth.

“I just really try to stay in tune with the infrastructure that impacts our economic viability,’’ he said. “State Route 24 is already being built. That’s going to make a significant difference.’’

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