Denyse Airheart

Maricopa Economic Development Director Denyse Airheart speaks in January during the kickoff event of the Maricopa Advocate Program.

MARICOPA — After six years with the city, Maricopa’s economic development director is leaving. But she’s going out on top.

Denyse Airheart last week was named Economic Developer of the Year for small communities by the Arizona Association for Economic Development. The state organization credited her with overseeing projects that brought more than $20 million in capital investment, along with 200,000 square feet of new retail space and more than 75 new jobs.

Specifically, AAED cited Airheart’s introduction of the Maricopa Business Registry Program, launching Maricopaville Small Business Saturday and the Food Truck Battle Royale, expanding the Maricopa Advocate Program and staging the 2018 economic summit.

“It was pretty emotional,” Airheart said about winning the award. “You’re nominated by your peers and a committee that represents economic development around the state. So it’s a huge honor, one that I’ve been eying for years.”

For her part, Airheart is most proud of the Copper Sky commercial development that made significant progress this past year, including the announcement of the city’s first hotel, which will be a La Quinta located between Copper Sky and State Route 347. Getting that level of investment, she believes, is what made Maricopa stand out from the competition around the state.

While winning the award is a career highlight, it comes at an interesting time for Airheart. Thursday will be her last day on the job as she is moving with her family to Colorado, where her husband took a new job. This will end her six-year run in Maricopa, a time that saw economic development pick up again after the struggles of the recession.

“I think it’s bittersweet,” Airheart said of leaving the city. “There a bit of nostalgia walking around, talking to colleagues about projects that have been done, ones that are on the way and those that are ongoing.”

She doesn’t yet know what the next step is for her career, saying she is going to take some time to help her family transition to a new home. But she plans on getting back into the economic development field.

Wherever she winds up, Airheart said she will be taking many lessons she learned while working in Maricopa, including a whole new perspective on how to approach development.

“Just because we are a governmental agency doesn’t mean we have to look and behave like one,” she said. “I think we are very similar to a startup company, so it’s a matter of getting the right people on your team, people who think like an entrepreneur and bring great ideas to the table. We don’t have the attitude of doing things just because we’ve always done it that way.”

There is currently no time line for replacing Airheart, according to City Manager Rick Horst.

“We are very proud of Denyse and her many accomplishments that have contributed to the high quality of life we all enjoy as residents of this great community,” Horst said. “Her imprint will be on the community for decades to come.”

Airheart said she is excited to see what the future has in store for Maricopa, as she doesn’t see the growth stopping any time soon.

“I know the future is bright for Maricopa,” Airheart said. “To not be a part of that is a little sad, but I know we have a mayor and council that is going to keep pushing for great things.”