Courtesy of By Garin Groff, Tribune, April 6, 2012

Executives with the Gaylord Entertainment Co. have visited Mesa for the first time since they laid out plans in 2008 to build a 1,200-room resort and conference center.

Mayor Scott Smith said the city invited Gaylord to check out progress around the proposed resort because so much has changed in four years. The 100-acre resort would have stood alone in east Mesa if it had been built shortly after it was announced, but the recession delayed it.

Smith said the city showed Gaylord executives two weeks ago that the area has become one of Mesa’s more active places for development.

“They saw that they’re no longer the trail blazer,” Smith said. “There’s been huge amounts of investments that have been made. That certainly can’t help but impress them.”

The proposed resort would be one of the key attractions at the 3,200-acre Eastmark master-planned community at the former General Motors Proving Grounds.

In fact, it was envisioned as the first attraction there.

But Eastmark owner DMB Associates will start selling 800 homes in 2013, the first of 15,000 units to be built over several decades.

And Tempe-based First Solar is also nearing completion of a $300 million manufacturing plant in the area.

Other activity includes passenger traffic at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport soaring from next to nothing in 2008 to more than one million passengers this year. And construction will begin next week on a new freeway, the state Route 24. It will open in late 2013 and bring drivers to the edge of Eastmark.

Smith said Mesa officials have traveled to Gaylord’s headquarters in Nashville since 2008 but that the city believed an update here could help push things along.

Smith acknowledged other factors trump that progress.

Mesa is at a disadvantage because of how bad Arizona’s economy suffered in the recession. Also, he said the travel sector is still hurt from President Barack Obama discouraging travel to exotic resorts, and from the state’s political climate.

“We have more ground to make up,” he said.

Gaylord can’t move forward with an $800 million investment until the overall economy improves, Smith said. The company is especially mindful of trends in its niche market, the business meeting traveler.

And Mesa is no longer the company’s sole expansion location. Gaylord is looking to the Denver area, where it has been offered $300 million in incentives. Denver is ahead of Mesa because of that and because Arizona’s economy was hit harder than Colorado’s, Smith said.

But Gaylord said it’s possible both resorts could go forward at the same time if the economy is strong enough, Smith said.

He said he’s confident the Gaylord will be built because the company is committed to building four or five Western resorts.

“They know this, long-term, is a stronger market than almost any other market,” he said.