Casa Grande Roots Go Deep
Interview by Bea Lueck
You might be able to take the kid out of Casa Grande, but you can’t take Casa Grande out of the kid. For almost his entire life, Matt Herman has made this town the center of his universe. And although he left for a short while to attend college … a mere 40-some miles from home … he was happy to return to his roots where three generations of his family were born and raised and today are bonded together by their family owned business, Norris RV. As husband, father, and hardworking member of the Casa Grande City Council, Matt is as dedicated to his family as his town. We sat down with him to find out exactly what makes him happy and where he sees the future of Casa Grande.
GC LIVING: I’m here today with Matt Herman, a short-time resident of Casa Grande … Seriously, you were born and raised here and your family has been here for three generations!
Matt Herman: That’s true. My grandma on my dad’s side came from Oklahoma in covered wagons. They settled near the Florence area and lived in tents in the desert. We asked her about that and she said they got rich and then had two tents!
GC LIVING: What were their names?
Matt Herman: Johnnie and Irwin Herman. She remarried and became Johnnie Myers. She was a teacher in Maricopa for a long time. My dad’s name is, coincidentally, Johnnie Irwin Herman, which no one knows because everyone calls him Butch. (Laughs)
GC LIVING: Did they live in Maricopa or did she commute?
Matt Herman: She lived in Maricopa. On my mom’s side of the family, the Norris side of the family, my grandpa and grandma came from Missouri and settled in the Phoenix area before coming to Casa Grande. He sold mini blinds before he got into the fertilizer business and eventually, with a partner, started his own company. It was called Taylor and Norris and they sold fertilizer, agricultural chemicals and such to area farmers. He bought out his partner and for 50 years it was the Norris Chemical Company. When the farms started selling out to RV parks, he said, “Maybe we should start selling a few RV parts.” And now our main line of business is Norris RV.
GC LIVING: What school did you go to?
Matt Herman: I went to Cottonwood and Cholla Elementary Schools and then I went to Casa Grande Middle School where my wife, Erica, currently teaches. Both my wife’s mother and my mother went to school there. And then I went to the only high school at the time, Casa Grande Union. [Editors note: The original Casa Grande Union High School is now the current City Hall.] I was actually student body president in middle school and high school.
GC LIVING: Who was your favorite teacher in school?
Matt Herman: Mrs. Peterson. She was our student council sponsor and English teacher in junior high. I had the honor to speak at her funeral years ago. She really got us going as a group. I grew up with a core group of friends. We did student council together, regular classes together and everything. Mrs. Peterson was also our drama teacher as well as our English teacher. She got me to be in plays and somehow made me wear tights to be the Pied Piper in one of our plays. She was a not a big lady but somehow got me to wear tights in front of all my friends.
GC LIVING: Were you into athletics?
Matt Herman: Yes. I played Cougar football all through junior high and high school — freshman, JV, Varsity with a lot of my friends. One of our coaches, Coach Purdom, had us go out for track in the off-season. It wasn’t for my running ability, he just wanted us to keep active. I did shot put and discus and tried to run my way around the track. The joke was they timed me with a calendar not a stopwatch.
GC LIVING: You graduated high school in 1994 and then you went to the famed university down the road, the University of Arizona.
Matt Herman: (Laughs) I went to ASU. Third generation of my family to go to ASU. I got my degree in business administration and business management. A big part of my college life was my fraternity, Delta Sigma Phi, and I was active in the leadership of our fraternity house. We had a really good time and we helped each other get through school.
So the funny part … pretty much I’ve lived my entire life within a 50-mile radius of Casa Grande. I lived in Tempe for a little over four years when I was going to college, and that was it.
GC LIVING: Any plans to go back to get your MBA?
Matt Herman: Erica and I talk about it all the time, and I joke that I spent a lot of my MBA money on my restaurant projects in the early 2000s. She keeps encouraging me to go back, but I’m trying to get the finances and the time rounded up first.
GC LIVING: Back to the early 2000s. You had a Quiznos in Casa Grande?
Matt Herman: Yes with my good friend and business partner, Grant Shaw. We had three at one time. I really respect people who work in the restaurant business because it is the hardest work you’ll ever do.
GC LIVING: What civic groups are you involved with?
Matt Herman: One of the first things I did when I moved back to Casa Grande was get involved with the Boys and Girls Club. About the time I moved back, they had sponsored a fundraiser concert featuring Pam Tillis. I remember reading about it in the paper, and I thought the tickets were kind of expensive for a family to attend. It didn’t work out how they expected and lost money. And I thought, “They should’ve done this and should’ve done that.” And then I said to myself, “If I’m going to talk about it, I better do something and get involved.”
I got to work with a lot of great people — Colleen Bechtel, Bill Bridwell, Randy Davis, Paula Lambert, Bert Lesher. We had a great board of directors. I ended up as president of the board. They still have a great board today. We got a lot of things started during the time period I was active. We opened more branches, hired Matt Lemberg as our director, another local guy that grew up here and came back to live.
I also participated in The Center for Rural Leadership — Project CENTRL, class 16. I met a lot of people around the state of Arizona and that opened a lot of doors for me on the city and state level. It’s a good way to start a conversation with someone about issues that we have here.
GC LIVING: When did you become involved in Rotary?
Matt Herman: I received a Rotary scholarship to go to ASU. In Project CENTRL, I met people that were Rotarians in other cities. They told me about this program called Group Study Exchange, where professionals from different Rotary districts go to another country and learn about their businesses, their lifestyles and their Rotary clubs. You can only do that before you’re a Rotarian. I went to Australia, sponsored by The Rotary Club of Casa Grande. After I came back, I joined the Rotary Club and I’ve served a lot of positions including president and auction chair.
GC LIVING: So Boys and Girls Club, Project CENTRL, Rotary … what else have you done?
Matt Herman: Well, city council, of course.
GC LIVING: What led you to decide to run for city council? You were the youngest person on the council when you were elected.
Matt Herman: I still am the youngest person on the council. There was an opening on the Planning and Zoning Commission. I talked to some people who said, “Hey, Matt. You ought to try this. It’s a good way to learn what the city’s all about.”
So I interviewed and was appointed to the Planning and Zoning Commission. But before the first meeting, there was a vacancy announced for the city council when Karl Peterson resigned.
I had met Karl through Project CENTRL and Pinal County Town Hall. They were doing interviews to fill his vacancy. A couple of people in town said, “Hey, why don’t you apply for it? Give it a shot.”
GC LIVING: Who was the driving force behind you submitting your application?
Matt Herman: Two people, my wife, Erica, and my friend and business partner, Grant Shaw.
GC LIVING: So you served the remainder of Karl’s term, which was about a year and then you ran for office?
Matt Herman: And then I ran. And, luckily, we were unopposed. The people that were and still are on the Council, taught me a lot and were very helpful. I don’t want to say I was unprepared, but I was just …
GC LIVING: Would you say naïve?
Matt Herman: Yes, naïve. You think, “It’s a couple meetings a month.” But it’s a lot more than that. I love doing it, but it’s a balance between family life, work at my real job and being on the city council.
GC LIVING: It’s a lot more work than people perceive.
Matt Herman: Very true. It’s a big commitment, but it’s something that I really enjoy doing. There’s so many things it takes to run a city of Casa Grande’s size.
GC LIVING: What do you see some of the challenges facing city government? Not just Casa Grande’s city government but city government overall.
Matt Herman: Of course, funding is always going to be a challenge. In Arizona, the state legislature is limiting our power as a city to do some things that might be in our best interest. It seems like a small thing, but they changed the date when our city council elections could be held. We liked having the elections in March, because then it was more focused on the city elections. Now we’re on the general cycle with Presidential elections, Congress, Senate … everything going on at the same time, so we get lost at the bottom.
One challenge is what people expect the city to do. We want big business to be here, and we want little business to be here. As a city, we can only do so much, but we take a lot of the blame for things.
GC LIVING: Like a business closing?
Matt Herman: We don’t want businesses, restaurants, retailers or warehouse clubs to close. We want them all to succeed. The flip side is when people say, “We don’t want this business here, we don’t need another fast-food restaurant or nail salon.” Well, it’s a free market. From the city perspective, it’s zoning, it’s safety, it’s legal requirements, it’s business licenses. That is all we can do. We get these big projects that come in, “Well, we’re going to invest millions and billions of dollars, and we need this.” So we get the zoning, which is in our purview. We come to agreements that work best for the people of Casa Grande and we say, “Okay. We’ve done our part. Now you build.”
And then people ask the city, “Why aren’t they starting?”
One of the biggest threats right now to cities is sales tax revenue bleed, especially in the Western states. Our property taxes are low. There’s no property taxes on the public lands and less than half of the state is privately held land. We don’t derive a lot of our revenue from property taxes. We’re sales-tax driven and online shopping impacts local sales. One of our biggest strengths is also one of our biggest weaknesses. Proximity to I-8 and I-10, we’re close to Phoenix, close to Tucson and it’s easy to go shopping elsewhere. That is lost sales tax revenue.
There’s been a lot of court cases lately about sales tax revenue going back to the states, going back to the cities. When you spend a dollar in Casa Grande at any store, little or big, you’re employing people who live in Casa Grande, who work here, or who own businesses here.
GC LIVING: I believe I read in one of the Chamber articles that a dollar circulates seven or more times in the community.
Matt Herman: Exactly. Local dollars stay here in town. If you shop at the local store instead of going to Chandler, that helps Casa Grande.
GC LIVING: Since 2010, we’ve had a lot of really large businesses announce they’re coming to Casa Grande. The first being PhoenixMart. Any updates? It’s been a slow process.
Matt Herman: I remember seeing the concept and thought, “This is a huge new concept.” They came to us, bought their land, submitted their plans to the city, paid their application fees and worked on getting permit approvals. One thing that was different was it hinged on a federal government immigration program called EB-5. For the foreign investors to bring their families here, they had to invest so much money and guarantee so many U.S. jobs. Casa Grande was an attractive location for the PhoenixMart investors. Everything got held up at the federal level and stalled the project.
There are plans for a sewer line to that side of the town. PhoenixMart is going to be the impetus for that sewer line to be built. Eventually we’re going to need a sewer line to the east.
A few years ago, city staff and city council had the foresight to build the Burris Road sewer line to our industrial park on the southwest side of town. We built the sewer line first and now we have Ehrman Dairy, Tractor Supply distribution center and Keystone Automotive; we have Lucid Motors looking at the area. That wouldn’t have happened unless we had the sewer line in place.
Sewer is important. It’s not one of the glamorous sides of the city, but it’s a big part of our infrastructure and something that big businesses need. The city has a cost-sharing agreement with PhoenixMart to bring the sewer line to the area. We haven’t started building the sewer line, but have the plans and right of way lined up. We haven’t put any undue dollars into their project.
GC LIVING: Now, Attessa is moving forward.
Matt Herman: Attessa is not currently in the city limits right now, but it is in our planning area. We’ve had a lot of discussions with them and at the last council meeting approved a new PAD (planned area development) district. Attessa is such a unique project with so many zoning components — race track, entertainment center, retail, residential, all kinds of different zoning.
GC LIVING: And their own industrial park.
Matt Herman: Yes, their own industrial area and possibly airstrip, too. There was no zoning that fit the project, so we made a new zoning district that their project and hopefully other projects may fit into in the future.
GC LIVING: And Lucid Motors has secured funding?
Matt Herman: Yes, they received private funding from an investment fund. And Pinal County agreed to a lease-purchase option on the land and those county bonds went to sale this past week. From what I heard yesterday, they’re doing very well on the market.
GC LIVING: Dreamport Village?
Matt Herman: The City has their needed zoning set and they’re still trying to get their funding. We have the agreements in place regarding infrastructure costs, but it only kicks in if they meet certain benchmarks.
GC LIVING: There’s a current buzzword: public-private partnerships. One example would be the Boys and Girls Club and the community recreation center.
Matt Herman: Yes. We’re stretching dollars to get the amenities people want in the community. We have a new home for the Boy’s and Girl’s Club, we have a new place for families to go and exercise, do classes, and a place for teenagers to hang out.
GC LIVING: Let’s segue a little bit to your wife, Erica. She’s big in the arts.
Matt Herman: My wife is an artist and one of her solo projects is she is trying to help beautify the downtown by painting murals. Instead of alleyways full of graffiti, she sees a canvas. She has gotten permission from building owners to paint murals on the sides of their buildings. She’s also an art teacher at Casa Grande Middle School and helps mentor kids through art and creativity. In her spare time (haha) she is active on several arts boards and committees for our city and state.
GC LIVING: One of her projects included the mural on the entire wall of Palo Verde Elementary School.
Matt Herman: We were so excited about that. Joann Kramer had the vision of the 140-foot wall as a mural by Erica and she donated all the paint and supplies. Erica donated her time and the design because she thought it was such a great thing. Several kids helped her. Lots of her former students and our friend’s kids came to paint with her during the summer of 2017.
You’ve got to have community pride. That’s one of the things I’ve been working on is figuring out how we can build more community pride. I’m proud to be from Casa Grande.
GC LIVING: How do you see ways to engage residents? We’re still a bedroom community, a lot of people commute to the Valley.
Matt Herman: From the city side, I believe the community recreation center will help, including various community events such as the art festival a few weeks back that featured music, storytelling, live performances and, of course, art. One of our best annual events is the Electric Light Parade. We had an estimated 50,000 people attend this year.
GC LIVING: Is there any jealousy with the neighboring communities? Maricopa’s had their community and aquatic center for a number of years. Coolidge has the performing arts center and artisan village. Casa Grande seems a little slow on adding amenities.
Matt Herman: Well, it depends on how you look at it. We’ve been here a lot longer than Maricopa. We have a lot of parks and amenities located throughout Casa Grande that have been here for a long time. We have Paul Mason Sports Complex, Dave White Regional Park, the rodeo grounds, Peart Park, the softball fields at O’Neil Park, Carr McNatt Park with Palm Island Aquatics, and Grande Sports World. We have a lot of sports fields around town, they’re just not concentrated in one place. We’re currently putting in pickle ball courts at Dave White. We do have a lot of amenities.
Maricopa had one advantage of master planning their community at one time and growing all at once. But Maricopa’s taxes are higher due to the voter-approved bonds to provide their amenities.
GC LIVING: So what do you see for Matt Herman’s future?
Matt Herman: Matt Herman hopes to live in Casa Grande for the rest of his life and be comfortable in life, enjoying our community, you know, happy, healthy and just keep trucking along here in Casa Grande.
GC LIVING: Have you thought about one day becoming mayor, legislator or governor?
Matt Herman: I don’t think I can handle the big politics, I’m too nice of a guy. I like to try to keep everyone happy. I’d like to be mayor someday, but it requires a lot more time than city council. It’s a full-time job but without the pay. Right now my family likes having a house, food and electricity, stuff like that. I’m fortunate I work for the family business. Without my mom and dad’s support, it would be difficult. But they hope to retire soon.
GC LIVING: You and Erica have done some traveling. What was your favorite destination?
Matt Herman: One would be the British Virgin Islands. We had the opportunity to go boating around the islands with some friends of ours to ring in 2018. Also, Cuba with Erica and my parents. Another would be. The other would be Graceland in Memphis. I’m a huge Elvis fan and it was just phenomenal.
GC LIVING: (Laughs) I’ve seen you in the white, rhinestone jumpsuit.
Matt Herman: Uh-huh.
GC LIVING: Picture Casa Grande about 25 years from today. What do you see?
Matt Herman: Hopefully, I see an electric-car manufacturer and a racetrack. Our neighbors in Coolidge will have a truck manufacturing facility and this area will be the hub of electric transportation manufacturing. Our population will be around 100,000 to 120,000 people, which I think is a good size to support regional retail needs. Our mall will be bustling with activity and our downtown will have more destination restaurants and shops, as well as regular events and activities. We need to grow, but we want to make sure that it’s going to fit our lifestyle and keep Casa Grande’s unique small-town feel.
GC LIVING: What’s the one thing that stands out growing up here in Casa Grande?
Matt Herman: The people. Everyone says that, but I still walk into restaurants and see people I know, people I grew up with. Many have moved on for different reasons — education, jobs and just to leave, but then they come back to Casa Grande and are now raising their families here. There are several generations who call Casa Grande home.