The forlorn site of Mesa’s last downtown new-car dealership is on its way to becoming one of the biggest cultural attractions in the American Southwest.
But the spectacular façade of a world-class concert hall will be only part of the story. Within the campus, cutting-edge research will examine how music can mend a broken mind. Students will learn performing arts from the best in the business. And if the founder’s vision holds true, sorrowful souls will find balm for their troubles in a venue whose very name conveys solace.
That name: Consolari.
The Latin word was chosen by Christi Worsley to convey the true purpose of her grand vision: Healing, consolation, relief.
Her belief in the restorative power of music springs from personal experience. After her daughter Chelsee Hunt lost an unborn son, Hunt found peace as she performed with the East Valley Millennial Choir.
Worsley also saw the power of music to soothe the shattered psyche of her father as he battled Alzheimer’s disease.
Worsley and her husband, Bob, who serves as a state senator from Mesa, have worked nearly five years to bring Consolari to fruition.
The most daunting aspect is financial. At the outset, the Worsleys estimated they needed to raise $150 million in private donations. That has now risen to $200 million.
That kind of money doesn’t come from donation jars and car washes. The Worsleys have specifically targeted wealthy people across the country as potential patrons, while pointedly telling them Consolari is not meant to be a mere plaything for the rich.
In past interviews, Christi Worsley has said those who can afford admission to the auditorium will be asked to do so. Once inside, they will enjoy a majestic venue modeled on classic European architecture and capable of accommodating 400 or more singers as well as a symphony orchestra.
Outside the hall, concerts will be shown on a 7,000-square-foot digital screen facing Main Street. That speaks to the project’s aim of bringing music to the masses.
In addition to the main auditorium, Consolari will include other indoor performance halls, an amphitheater, a rose garden dedicated to the memory of the Worsleys’ stillborn grandson as well as other gardens and lawns, and retail/restaurant space.
Each performing venue, according to Consolari’s website, will be “equipped with cutting-edge recording capabilities to capture and distribute the magical moments created in Consolari’s halls.”
Further, Christi Worsley said, “ASU Preparatory Academy and Mesa Public Schools have been working closely together to create a performing arts school as part of the Consolari campus.”
The healing aspect of Consolari will come directly from a resident music therapist working with patients suffering from a wide range of ailments, and the Worsleys hope to engage researchers looking into the power of music as a means of combatting autism, dementia and other afflictions.
“Consolari will be a hub of cutting-edge research on best practices for healing through music,” according to the website. “Conferences and workshops open to the community will convene on its campus, fostering active engagement and dialogue among leading music therapists, neurologists, spiritual guides, artists and patients.”
The facilities would occupy 10 acres vacated in 2014 when AutoNation moved the former Brown & Brown Chevrolet dealership to Gilbert. That move ended a downtown Mesa tradition dating from 1925, when E.D. “Buster” Brown began selling cars there.
Christi Worsley said getting the project off the ground has been far more difficult than she imagined at the outset.
“It has been a very heavy lift,” she told the Tribune. “With that said, I’m grateful for unanswered prayers.”
She explained: “Had we gotten the funds when we wanted them, we would have built the wrong space. … One of my greatest concerns is making sure we create a space of transcendence that is not a financial burden to our state and philanthropists.”
She is not willing, she said, to create a financial white elephant.
“These halls have historically been a financial burden. It is a tired idea that we must simply expect this out of our arts venues. … Our audience is changing, and if we are not building this into our programming and physical space, we will be creating an albatross. It simply isn’t true that ‘if you build it, they will come.’”
That led, she said, to a dramatic design overhaul at the suggestion of Randy Vogel, who is director of theaters at the Mesa Arts Center.
Using the retractable fields and roof at University of Phoenix Stadium as a model, Worsley asked her architects and acousticians to design a hall with multiple uses – 2,000 seats for high-end concerts, an additional 500 seats for Broadway, opera and ballet performances, and the ability to accommodate 1,000 seats on a convention floor for lectures and other events.
“This transcendent work has required a very thoughtful process,” Worsley said. “There have been as many crucial changes in my perspective and heart as there have been on the physical facility.”
As for the timing, she said that depends on when the money comes in.
“We are working on a $30 million to $50 million lead gift,” she said. “Once that is in place, we will be a go,” with many people lined up to offer smaller amounts.
“My hope,” she said, “is that we open this hall December of 2021”—four years after the original target date.
“There are a lot of people that think this project has gone away,” she said. “I assure you we are fully committed and working to make it a reality.”
The site, at least, is firmly in hand. John Graham, Consolari’s board chairman, bought the former Brown & Brown property last year.
The land is virtually next door to the Mesa Arts Center, which features four performance halls anchored by the 1,600-seat Ikeda Theater.
The Worsleys see no conflict between their project and the 10-year-old, $100 million city-owned venue. In their view, the two facilities could compose one virtually seamless arts campus.
City officials have endorsed the Worsleys’ vision, saying it will help create the critical mass needed to turn downtown Mesa into a cultural destination.
Already, many of the ingredients for such a destination are in place. The mix includes:
• The Mesa Arts Center, which was approved by voters in a 1998 sales-tax election and opened in 2006.
• Recently opened downtown campuses of Wilkes University and Benedictine University, which the city recruited in an effort to deepen its portfolio of higher-education options.
• Three city-owned museums—the Arizona Museum of Natural History, the i.d.e.a. museum (formerly the Arizona Museum for Youth) and galleries in the Mesa Arts Center.
• The Mesa Historical Museum, which plans to move into the historic federal building on Macdonald just north of Main Street by mid-2017.
Even with all that in place, however, large swaths of Mesa’s central business district need redevelopment.
The Worsleys chose the Brown & Brown site partly for that reason, just as Lincoln Center anchored extensive urban renewal efforts in Manhattan a half-century ago.
“I had a dear friend,” Christi Worsley said, “tell me once that it takes a long time to do really amazing things, and just a little longer to do the impossible. Consolari qualifies in the ‘little longer’ category.