President and CEO, Pinal Partnership
Interview by Bea Lueck
GC LIVING: Tell me where you were born and raised, and a little bit about your family.
Tony Smith: I was born in Muncie, Indiana, and I grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis that was about 12,000 people, very small-town atmosphere, and it seemed like we lived the best of that life. I had a great childhood. We had a family with five boys — I was the fourth. We had a ton of fun growing up, with the challenges of an average working-class family. My dad worked for the post office and my mom was a nurse. So we all had to learn to cook and do our own laundry. We had a busy household, a working mom, and so we all had our assigned domestic chores.
We learned to cook and do our own laundry before we left the house. I had similar criteria for my own children, I wanted them to have a driver’s license, be able to cook and do their own laundry. If they accomplish that, there’s a good possibility they won’t need to come back home to live. Well that’s the way it worked for me and my children.
GC LIVING: Where did you go to college?
Tony Smith: Purdue University. I went at the Indianapolis extension, so I did not go to West Lafayette, where their main campus is located, but I’m still a very passionate Purdue fan. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in construction technology. This was in the mid-70s and the business environment was just terrible. There was not much happening in construction, so I followed the engineering route and worked for a couple of firms doing civil engineering type work.
Then I started working for Public Service Indiana. I started working for them in project controls and project management. For the next 20, 25 years kind of an expert in schedule control for a number of projects, mostly in the power industry. I worked on several construction projects in the Midwest, eventually joining Illinois Power and relocating my family to Decatur, Illinois where I helped finish building the new Clinton Nuclear Station and staying for a couple of refueling outages.
I lived there until 1997, working for the power company except from 1995 to 1997 when I did some freelance contracting work at some other major construction projects around the country. In 1997, Motorola contacted me and wanted to know if I would be interested in coming to Phoenix to work. I always wanted to come to Arizona; I vacationed in Arizona during one of the very, very hot Julys a couple years earlier. I understood what I was getting into regarding the heat, but I absolutely loved the different look of Arizona, and it just kind of fascinated me, so I relocated my family.
My oldest daughter was I think 19 and engaged at that time, so she stayed in Illinois, but the two other children joined me and my wife in Arizona in 1997. I worked for Motorola on a number of projects until 2007. In 2007, I knew I had around 10 or 15 years left in my working life and I wanted to find something fun and interesting to do, so I left Motorola and thought I was going to do some consulting and contracting like I had shortly before 1997.
Then the economy went south big time and crashed, and I happened to be on the City of Maricopa’s planning and zoning commission as the chairman and Mayor Kelly Anderson suggested I run for mayor. I was really going to be content just to run for city council. I loved the idea of working with him and the other council members, but he thought I had what it took to be mayor.
I thought, “Well, I don’t think this will ever come around again. So why don’t I do it?” Fortunately, I had gotten my finances and my debts pretty much taken care of because I was going from a six-figure salary down to $10,000 a year, and that was quite a stretch.
GC LIVING: But the hours would be the same.
Tony Smith: Yes, that’s true. These jobs as public servants are really what you make it to be. Being a mayor was quite an experience, but I thought looking back that I was the right guy for the right time because my profession and project management, and understanding strategic planning, and putting things together, and being kind of an action-oriented guy was just what Maricopa needed at the time.
Even though we were going into the recession and the housing bust, I think there were a lot of things that I brought to the mayor’s office regarding being able to strategically think as far as what the city needed and where we needed to go in the next two to four years. I put those into practice. I worked with the city manager and that fall, after I was sworn in, we did our first strategic planning session and got everybody on the same page regarding where we wanted to go for the next two to five years.
GC LIVING: Now, that was about five years after the city incorporated, when you took office, correct?
Tony Smith: That’s true. Nancy and I moved to Maricopa in July 2003 shortly before we Maricopa incorporated later that year in October. When I took office in June 2008, the city was very, very young, and for the entire four years I was in there, we existed in trailers and temporary facilities, but that was OK. We knew what we wanted to do. It was quite a challenge building a city from scratch, with all the various challenges that you have in transportation, economic development. And even through the recession, we were still growing in population. Now, it seemed like we turned our population or a portion of it, over a number of times with people moving in and moving out, but we were able to rally the city around just keeping our neighborhoods nice and our property values up as much as we could.
We planned for the future. Land prices prior to the recession were just skyrocketing, just like they are today. We had a limited amount of budget, we were a new city, but when the recession was in full effect and the land prices dropped, we were able to make many strategic purchases. That’s where we were able to buy property for Copper Sky Regional Park — that’s a beautiful facility — and also buy property for where the City Hall was built. I was able to break ground for a number of those projects, but the ribbon-cutting I left to the next mayor, Mayor (Christian) Price.
At the time the mayor’s term was two years, and I did two terms, whereas now the mayor’s term is four years. So I did the four years and I thought what I get done as mayor, and my approach to public service, and the skills that I had, would work very nicely with the county. Because of the increased population, Pinal County went from three supervisors to five supervisors. Supervisor District 4 was one of the two new supervisor districts. I won the 2012 election and started my service as county supervisor in January 2013.
District 4 is really a weird shape, kind of like a huge “L”, about 115 miles from one end to the other that has about nine very different communities. Some of them were incorporated, some of them were not incorporated, and two Native American communities. I thought that made it very interesting and maybe one of the more challenging districts. I jumped in with the full vigor that I like to do things and worked with other supervisors, transitioning for the first time from the three supervisors to the five-supervisor format that we have today. We brought forward a lot of change in Pinal County. Politically, the county flipped from having primarily Democrat office-holders to Republican office holders.
The county changed in it’s emphasis for economic development interests too. We treasure our ag and mining industries, but they didn’t always have enough jobs to support our exploding population. Compound that with the fact that over half of our workers left their communities each day to work in Maricopa or Pima Counties, this was unacceptable for creating healthy sustainable local economies. We needed to create local living wage type jobs. One of the ways in which we thought we could accomplish that was to have local manufacturing, and of course Casa Grande has done decades of good attraction of industry, and certainly is a model for the rest of Pinal County to follow.
Through our first four years and a lot of transition, we were working with a lot of the development interests, but we were also trying to recover from the recession. Fortunately for Pinal County, we were the first county to recover our entire workforce that we had lost during the recession. Then we had to work on our finances. We were probably one of the highest-taxed counties in the state. Again, in my time when I was first given the opportunity to be chairman, I brought the idea of “Let’s sit down and do a strategic plan together.” We, again, put a good roadmap together that we could all rally behind that would give us a vision for between three and five years.
We were able to recover our financial health and get the county on a very firm financial footing. Then rather than look at it as a county that was most interested in public safety, and public safety is important, but we switched the whole emphasis and looked at economic development, and that’s where the seeds of growth really happened, really bringing a change in our direction to strive to make Pinal County one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, and with an abundance of jobs for that population.
GC LIVING: During your tenure as the District 4 supervisor, what were some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of?
Tony Smith: I would say positioning the county with a transportation network. And what I’m referring to is the Pinal County Regional Transportation Authority that the Board of Supervisors created.
GC LIVING: And the voters approved, and we’re still in litigation (over the constitutionality of the tax in a lawsuit brought by a local person and the Goldwater Institute).
Tony Smith: Exactly. It is a 20-year plan with $640-million worth of projects. And I’m still optimistic that we’re going to get a positive court decision, but that particular initiative and getting the voters to approve that plan really is a huge deal for Pinal County. I was just traveling in the Metro Phoenix area over the weekend. I turned to Nancy and I said, look what all they’re able to do with their half-cent sales tax, and they’re able to just stay up with their transportation needs and building highways where they need to build highways. I look forward to the day that we are able to implement the plan that the voters approved.
And I thought when the voters approved that, that was, to me, as intricate as winning another election. You always have a lot of angst when you do a political campaign and all the energy that takes. And we put a lot into the RTA campaign, and we were pleased with the results. We’ve just been disappointed that it’s not being able to satisfy the needs of the voters for these more than three years since it has been passed.
We get questions all the time — why aren’t we doing something to improve Highway 347? And I get frustrated that we have the solution, but we just need to get started and have a favorable decision from the state Supreme Court, and then we’ll get on that. But meanwhile, people are having accidents and unfortunately fatalities, and a road that could be improved and made a lot safer than what it is today.
GC LIVING: If you had a do-over moment, whether it’s as serving as mayor of the City of Maricopa or as county supervisor, what would you have done differently and why?
Tony Smith: Well, I think the water resources and water management is a very, very difficult topic. Because it is such a serious and important topic for Pinal County and its communities, I think I probably should have studied and learned more on that particular issue. We relied heavily on Supervisor Miller, he’s on the committees and very knowledgeable in that area. He and others are doing a great job. I think it’s just because it’s so vitally important to Pinal County and Arizona, and it’s going to be a topic that is going to be studied and managed for many, many decades. I think I would, if I had to do it over, be more vigilant in that area.
GC LIVING: So now you are out of elected government. But Mrs. Smith, Nancy, has moved into Maricopa City Council.
Tony Smith: Yes. I think she’s done six years now on City Council. She’s the current vice mayor. We are really cut from the same cloth where we use project management skills in both our public and private lives. It works for her just like it worked for me.
Nancy does a really good job for the City of Maricopa. She likes it and since she retired from Motorola about fives years ago it gives her an avenue to do her work serving the community. She gives a lot of good effort into trying to do everything right for the city. And then she’s also like me, having a heart for non-profits. She does a lot of work with the youth or children’s nonprofits, and since she is a cancer survivor, she does work for Relay for Life and other nonprofits like that.
GC LIVING: You retired from the Board of Supervisors at the end of 2020 and that lasted for how long before you accepted the president and CEO position with Pinal Partnership?
Tony Smith: It was March 19. I wasn’t looking to get myself engaged in additional work, but I always admired the work of the Pinal Partnership and attended as many of their events as possible. It was one of those things where I don’t know if this opportunity will come around again and I considered it, Pinal Partnership, one of the premier organizations in Pinal County.
I said “yes” and I love doing it, working as their leader in that regard, working with a great board of directors from a various and diverse group of corporations and institutions. After a couple of months, our Executive Director resigned to take a job that was more in her career path. After doing an extensive search, we found Rina Rien from Casa Grande. Rina’s skills and knowledge of Pinal County and its communities made her an excellent match to be our next Executive Director. She started in late June and has hit the ground running.
Before I started with Pinal Partnership I’d had a little bit of time off and I did quite a bit to prepare for life in retirement. I also put together an incredibly fun bucket list of things to do. And fortunately, working with Pinal Partnership, I’m able to do some of those things, such as hiking the Arizona Trail, of which I’ve had a good start.
That is a very long trail that goes from Utah to Mexico for 800 miles. And I was able to, with a couple of other men, do about 37 miles. I had some foot problems with blisters that kept me out a couple of days, but I was able to finish the last day and do the 11 miles that was required to get us to the edge of the Grand Canyon.
GC LIVING: You did almost half of the 70-odd mile trip, correct?
Tony Smith: I did the three of the five days that we had planned. The two other days were quite long walks of 17 miles and another one of 20 miles. I’ll go back and do those sometime between now and the fall, but I want to do the whole entire trail, eventually.
GC LIVING: What are some of the things Pinal Partnership does to help attract industry to the county?
Tony Smith: The mission of Pinal Partnership is to unite the vision for responsible economic development through public and private partnerships. They do that by informing and at times advocating for issues important to Pinal County and our communities. They have an economic development committee, transportation committee, water works committee, health committee, open space and trails committee. We often do studies to help out either local governments or regarding the county.
For example, when the county needed to put together a master plan for Open Spaces and Trails, the committee that oversaw and participated in that was part of Pinal Partnership, and they continue to provide input.
GC LIVING: Are you able to share any of the projects that you’re working on?
Tony Smith: We have a project that we’re wanting to put forth latter in 2021 and 2022. Currently, we have a large hardcopy map of Pinal County with a lot of the various facilities, showing major transportation routes and other major locations. But we want to digitize that and put it so it’s on our website, working with the county.
We’ve had some preliminary discussions on this tool that would be able to have various layers, whether you wanted to show all the utilities, or you wanted to show transportation routes, or you wanted to show the spots for tourism, or you wanted to show the city limits. Maybe we’ll have some of the areas where we have special economic development interests such as the Arizona Innovation and Technology Corridor.
GC LIVING: So I’m looking at some of the photos that you sent us. When did you do the skydiving? The tandem jump?
Tony Smith: That was four years ago. I was still county supervisor and I was visiting the facility, Skydive Phoenix, west of Maricopa. They had moved to a new location and some of the neighbors were complaining about dust that was associated with the airplanes and people coming and going to the facility.
And I went out and talked to a manager to see the situation firsthand. After coming up with some solutions, he asked me if I wanted to go on a plane and jump out of it. And I said, “Well, if I thought about it I’d probably have said no, but now that I’m here, I think I will do that.” I took him up on the offer, just kind of on a lark. And so yes, it was quite an experience. I would do it again.
GC LIVING: What’s next in your future?
Tony Smith: Well, Nancy has four years on the City Council, she was elected in November and she just started her next term. I can see that I will do Pinal Partnership for at least four-plus years. I don’t know when that will end, but I will give it all I have for the time I’m with the Partnership. It really intellectually stimulates me, and it keeps me engaged in areas I think I can really help and benefit others.