2016 Movers & Shakers - Dan Henderson

Written by Alejandra Armstrong Category: People Issue: September 2016
Group Free

From gourmet burgers and barbecued brisket to farm-to-table meals and Mexican soul food, downtown Gilbert is a model of culinary density. But the man most responsible is not a chef or a restaurateur – in fact, he holds the less-than-mouthwatering title of “Gilbert Economic Development Director.”

That would be Dan Henderson, who since 2007 has logged untold hours lining the town’s historical Heritage District with upward of 30 eateries by some of the Valley’s premier dining brands and talent, including Postino WineCafé, Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles and Nico Heirloom Kitchen by chef/restaurateur Gio Osso.

Calling the town’s transformation a “30-year overnight success,” Henderson credits the dining windfall to a three-decade-old town strategy of acquiring property along Gilbert Road, allowing  the town to zone efficiently and attract businesses to the East Valley.

Henderson also points to early pioneers in the area such as restaurateur Joe Johnston, who opened Joe’s Real BBQ in 1998. But Henderson was at the heart of the current renaissance when he lured Postino, brainchild of grade school friend Craig DeMarco, into opening a location in the Heritage District. “In order to build a community, you need those building blocks,” Henderson says.

Once Postino joined the downtown area, a tipping point was reached, Henderson says, triggering the biggest influx of local business development the East Valley has seen. “I think those building blocks were there, they were just not discovered by those who enjoy downtown Gilbert today.”

To be sure, Gilbert was not always a dining oasis. Originally, the town was a 1900s whistle stop with a railroad cutting straight through the current Gilbert Road corridor. Later, the town represented the easternmost frontier of the Phoenix sprawl, with exponential population and development growth, but little of the attendant cultural electricity. That started to change around the time of Henderson’s hiring. From 2008 to 2015, Gilbert experienced a 93 percent annual tax revenue increase and saw its population swell to 240,000.

Since Gilbert’s physical growth is constrained by county and city borders, Henderson is shifting to an urban density model, leading the development of 170 new residential units in the Heritage District.

The Tempe native also masterminded the courtship of St. Xavier University, a private university from Illinois, to open a campus in Gilbert. In June, after less than a year in operation, the college announced it is terminating its lease with the town. Henderson, however, has already begun negotiations with 15 other higher-education institutions to lease the building.
Who knows? He might just turn Gilbert into a college town yet.

– Alejandra Armstrong