Strength of Character

City of Flagstaff, Arizona

With a fast-growing population and an economy focused on careers in science and technology, Flagstaff is quickly emerging as an alternative to the heat and hustle and bustle of Phoenix or Tucson for many people interested in relocating to Arizona.

“People think Arizona is all desert throughout the entire state,” said John Saltonstall, Business Retention and Expansion Manager for the city. But, he says, “Northern Arizona is an island surrounded by the desert; we receive 100 to 120 inches of snow every year and we have four seasons, so we have a different character from rest of state.”

The unique character of Flagstaff makes it stand out from its peer cities in the region and has helped to drive its destiny since the city was first settled in 1876. The city grew quickly, as it became a major stop on the transcontinental railroad route and served as a hub for the logging industry due to its location within the surrounding ponderosa forests. In the 1920s, US Route 66 was built through the city, making it a major stop for motorists passing through. Due to its proximity to the Grand Canyon, just a little over an hour away, Flagstaff became a hub for tourism early in its history.

Today, Flagstaff is a thriving community of over 68,000 people and a metropolitan area of 136,539. As the largest population center in Northern Arizona, Flagstaff serves as a government and commercial hub for that part of state.

Even with its beginnings as a logging and railroad town, science and technology have always had a strong presence in the city. In 1894, astronomer Percival Lowell established the Lowell Observatory, citing Flagstaff’s elevation and clear skies as ideal conditions for erecting a telescope. In 1930, Pluto was discovered using one of the observatory’s telescopes. The US Naval Observatory established a location in Flagstaff in the 1950s, and the Clark Telescope was used to map the moon for the lunar expeditions in the 1960s.

Northern Arizona University (NAU) was founded as Northern Arizona Normal School in 1899 as a college for teachers. NAU has since expanded into a major research university with a total enrollment of over 26,000 students in nearly 150 combined undergraduate and graduate degree programs in subjects such as forestry, ecology, genomics and biology. In fact, the city boasts the highest educated workforce in the entire state.

NAU is home to a branch of the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing diagnostics and treatments based on research from the human genome project. Flagstaff was selected because of the extensive research into pathogens and microbial genomics being conducted at NAU. Led by microbiologist Dr. Paul Keim, TGen-North played an instrumental role in solving the 2001 anthrax attacks that terrorized the nation just days after the September 11 attacks.

“Dr. Keim was called to lead the investigation and research into the attacks,” shares Richard Bowen, who serves as AVP for Economic Development, Northern Arizona University and President of Economic Collaborative of Northern Arizona, Inc. “Due to his work, he had every known variant of anthrax and was able to detect the vial and variant of the strain that was used in the attacks and find the culprit.” Although the culprit committed suicide before being brought to trial, Dr. Keim received many awards for his research and efforts, including the 2012 Bioscience Researcher of the Year from the Arizona Bioindustry Association.

Over the last 20 years, Northern Arizona University, TGen, and other related projects have attracted about 250 PhD level genomicists to the city and have led to a robust bioscience industry spinning off in Flagstaff.

This dedication to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) related businesses distinguishes Flagstaff from many of its peer cities and many institutions have been instrumental in shaping Flagstaff’s economy. Currently, NAU is in the process of building a research park to take on additional institutes that focus on STEM to attract additional industries. The research park will also serve as a business incubator to develop additional bioscience companies.

In additional, manufacturing company W.L. Gore & Associates medical products division has been a part of the Flagstaff area since the late 1960s. The company was started in Delaware, and founder Bill Gore wanted a greater presence in the Western United States. Gore opened a facility in the city after vacationing in Arizona and enjoying the community and the convenience of having a university in the city. W.L. Gore is most well known for developing implantable medical devices such as valves, artificial veins, and tissue replacement (which are manufactured in Flagstaff) and GORE-TEX® fabrics. “It was a happy accident that he discovered our city,” says Mr. Saltonstall. Today, there are over 5,100 employees in the bioscience industry in the community, with W.L. Gore the largest, employing 2,800 people.

Many former employees of W.L. Gore gone on to develop their own devices, machine shops, and manufacturing facilities in Flagstaff. One former Gore employee left to create Machine Solutions, Inc (MSI). Founded in 1999, MSI specializes in creating process and testing equipment for catheter and stent manufacturers throughout the world. The company currently employs 75 people.

Because of its quality of care and its location in the center northern third of state, Flagstaff Medical Center has become the leading facility in the region. It has the only Level 1 trauma center outside of Phoenix and Tucson and provides services such as full cardiac surgery, a cancer center and other specialties due to the large area it serves. The hospital also maintains a fleet of eight helicopters to cover the isolated parts of the region. “From a business development, retention, and expansion perspective, having Flagstaff Medical Center is a huge asset because of the quality of the facility,” says Mr. Bowen.

In 1974, Nestlé Purina (then Ralston Purina) needed a location in the Western U.S. for their pet food manufacturing. Due to Flagstaff’s location along a transcontinental railroad and Interstate 40, and good environmental conditions such as low humidity and cooler temperatures, it was proven to be the ideal location for the plant. Today, Nestlé Purina’s facility occupies 1 million square feet and ships pet food across the Western United States, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico.

Another manufacturing company in the city is Prent Corporation, known as one of the world’s leading designers and manufacturers of custom plastic thermoform packaging for the medical, electronics and consumer industries.

Flagstaff is also home to Kahtoola, the world’s leading clamp-arm manufacturer for ice hiking, snow climbing. With the city’s proximity to some of the nation’s top recreational areas and an environment conducive to research and development, Flagstaff proved to be an ideal location for the company. “The company has become a world leader in developing these products,” says Mr. Saltonstall.

Due to the high altitude of the area (about 7,000 feet above sea level), Flagstaff is also home to some unique facilities that utilize the city for their advantage. The High Performance Sport Center (Hypo2) is a training center for athletes who need high-altitude training and support services. Facilities include Olympic-sized pools, running tracks, and sports medicine facilities that specialize in chiropractic and physiotherapy. “There are lots of places where you can train at 7,000 feet, but very few with the amenities and access that Hypo2 provides,” Mr. Saltonstall explains.

Of course, it’s not all work and no play in Flagstaff; with its location in the heart of the 1.856-million acre Coconino National Forest and its positioning as the main gateway to the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff is a prime year-round destination for tourists. Not only is the surrounding area popular with campers, backpackers, mountain climbers and bikers, Flagstaff also serves as a recreational hub for road cycling and mountain biking clubs, triathlon events, and annual cross country ski races. The city itself boasts 679 acres of parkland and maintains 50 miles of trails for hiking, running, and cycling, called the Flagstaff Urban Trails System (FUTS). Several major river-running operators are headquartered in the city, which also serves as a base for Grand Canyon and Colorado River expeditions.

Due to NAU’s presence, Flagstaff is also home to NCAA sports and cultural activities such as the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, led by a conductor who splits her time between Flagstaff and the New York Philharmonic. “Not many communities our size have a symphony orchestra with 120 people and a conductor from New York, but we do,” shares Mr. Bowen.

With its ideal location, climate and dedication to fostering STEM-related businesses, the City of Flagstaff has a bright future that focuses on its unique attributes. Chosen as one of the best places to live in the United States by Men’s Journal in 2011, and listed as one of the top 30 Best Towns in America in the 2007 edition of Outside Magazine, Flagstaff certainly has a broad appeal.

“We’re a small city that has all the facilities and amenities of a larger one,” says Mr. Saltonstall. “All of this happens in a 65 mile square area; we still have a small town feel but we have premier medical facilities, large manufacturers, and a large university. Most small cities do not have what we have and we have room to grow because we’re a good place to be.”

September 23, 2017, 5:45 PM EDT

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