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Grand Canyon University Manages Growing Pains With More Land, Students And Business

Grand Canyon Univeristy
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
A view of GCU dorms from west Phoenix's Little Canyon Park.

Grand Canyon University has undergone a type of renaissance in the past ten years. New ownership has used a business model that takes online tuition and re-invests that money into physical classrooms and dorms. That explosive growth has upset some neighbors, and the university is trying to manage those growing pains.

One may be hearing more GCU ads or seeing purple billboards across the Valley. Ramping up the school’s advertising presence is just one way GCU keeps expanding: more students, more buildings and more business.

“We want to create jobs, and we also want to create revenue streams, which will help us keep tuition as low as possible,” GCU President Brian Mueller said.

Mueller is part of the force behind this rapid growth. He credits using the public market to re-invest in the school, and the success of their online program.

GCU has a diverse list of companies under its masthead — a coffee company, hotel, restaurant and nearby golf course.

“We want to spin off an advertising company run by recent graduates as well,” Mueller said.

And the university has been gobbling up property, buying privately owned lots and working with the city to acquire public land.  

But some neighbors aren’t happy, citing a controversial agreement when Phoenix sold the school some land of nearby Little Canyon park.

A Neighborhood Park Surrounded By GCU

The park is a popular place for neighborhood kids to play basketball and soccer.

Donna Homsher’s daughter lived near campus.

“It became clear that it wasn’t if she would sell her house, it was when,” Homsher said.

GCU said they pay above market value for local property. Homsher said it was still nerve-wracking to find a new place, along with the ongoing construction nearby.

She works with local neighbors to make sure their voices are heard.

“We really don’t know what to separate out and to fight, what do we take on? We can’t take on the whole thing,” Homsher said of GCU's expansion.

Homsher said she will fight to keep the park intact.

President Mueller said the university still wants to move the park a few blocks over, but will keep working with the community to hear their input.

"If it works, we’ll do it, if not, we’ll find a different way to use that property," Mueller said.

The sprawl of purple buildings and parking has ballooned from 100 acres to 400, creating a footprint that bears little resemblance to the school sold in 2004.

But what remains is its faith-based mission of Christian higher education.

A Private, Christian University, Reinvented

“Well if the university had not been purchased, the group that purchased them, it wouldn’t be there,” said Gil Stafford, former GCU president.

Gil Stafford was the president when GCU ownership changed.

He’s priest-in-charge at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Litchfield Park now and is thoughtful when considering whether the school has remained true to the Southern Baptist founders.

He lists off points — rigorous Christian studies, faculty statements of faith and a campus chapel.

“So from my standpoint, it has all the characteristics, of a particular sense, of one of the many strands of Christianity," Stafford said. "Is it Southern Baptist, no, but frankly that’s not the point, I don’t think.”

The point, he thinks, is offering higher education among a Christian community that’s still present.

GCU has reached out to west Phoenix, a historically impoverished area, to employ locals like José Salcedo Jacquez. He spent his teens here and heard through his local church that GCU was looking to hire people.

“With our church, we’ve partnered with them and they help us a lot," Jacquez said. "Our church is growing and we’ve been growing for a lot of years."

Jacquez works at the new hotel and is adamant that the growth has only helped west Phoenix flourish.

"Everywhere they’re reaching or everywhere they’re expanding to, is honestly just making it better,” Jacquez said.

Back at Little Canyon Park, kids trickle in to fill the playground sets.

Local Donna Homsher is worried these kids won’t have a place to play if GCU keeps growing and moves the park.

At the playground a few middle-schoolers from the local Cordova School hang out. They talk about their hobbies, and if they want to go to college.

“Yeah," they said, in unison.

When asked if GCU is an option, they respond enthusiastically, "Yeah!"

When asked why, they pipe up — one said because it is close. Another said because it seems like they have fun. And another, said it seems like they play a lot of sports there and may want to play them once in college — though not at the moment.

GCU hopes by learning from its growing pains it can provide more opportunities for the young people on the playground and the school’s other neighbors, too.

Changes Since 2004

Click and drag the center slider to see how GCU's campus has grown.

Casey Kuhn reports from KJZZ’s West Valley Bureau. She comes to Phoenix from the Midwest, where she graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.Kuhn got her start in radio reporting in college at the community public radio station, WFHB. She volunteered there as a reporter and worked her way up to host the half-hour, daily news show. After graduating, she became a multimedia reporter at Bloomington's NPR/PBS station WFIU/WTIU, where she reported for and produced a weekly statewide news television show.Since moving to the Southwest, she’s discovered a passion for reporting on rural issues, agriculture and the diverse people who make up her community.Kuhn was born and raised in Cincinnati, where her parents instilled in her a love of baseball, dogs and good German beer. You’ll most likely find her around the Valley with a glass of prosecco in one hand and a graphic novel in the other.She finds the most compelling stories come from KJZZ’s listeners.