The Mesa HoHoKams set out in 1951 to lure a baseball team to the city for spring training, and in just one year the civic organization snagged the Chicago Cubs.
The team went on to bring more national attention to Mesa than almost anything in city history while easily becoming the top draw of the Cactus League's 15 franchises.
Now, Mesa is asking voters to approve a $99 million plan for a new training complex that would keep the team from leaving Mesa.
The stakes are high.
Voters will decide whether history, civic pride and economic benefits are worth spending taxpayer dollars on a spring training complex that would keep the Cubs here for 30 years.
The Nov. 2 election follows nearly two years of the Cubs asking for better facilities and then entertaining an offer for a new complex near Naples, Fla. Supporters and opponents say the Cubs would likely leave if voters reject the new Mesa complex.
The Cubs insist they need better facilities to stay competitive - and to win their first World Series since 1908 - but their top goal is to stay here.
"We don't really have a Plan B," said Mike Lufrano, the Cubs' general counsel. "We want to stay in Mesa. We've worked hard on this plan."
The plan is this: Mesa would spend $84 million on a stadium, practice fields and training facilities at the Riverview Park in northwest Mesa. An additional $15 million would go toward roads, water lines and improving the existing Riverview Park. The Cubs would lease most of the 125-acre site, though the rate is to be determined later.
Non-binding agreements between the city and the Cubs caps Mesa's cost at $99 million, leaving the Cubs to pay for additional expenses or upgrades. The team's owners, the Ricketts family, would fund a Wrigleyville West retail district around the complex that would capture the flavor of Chicago's famed Wrigley Field.
The Cubs have a $138 million dollar economic impact on Arizona every year, according to a Mesa-commissioned study. Much of that leaves Mesa because the current Hohokam Stadium and Fitch Park training facilities are in residential neighborhoods. The new complex would keep more money in Mesa by having hotels, shops and restaurants nearby, city leaders say.
Mayor Scott Smith said the Ricketts family will want to develop Wrigleyville West to lure the kind of loyal fans that flock around the Chicago stadium on game days. The city's agreement doesn't require any development date for Wrigleyville, but Smith said the Ricketts will want to ensure fans patronize what the team invests in.
"I think people are underestimating the real incentive the Cubs have to not only develop Wrigleyville but develop it as quickly as the market will allow," Smith said.
Opponent Bob Kammrath is skeptical Wrigleyville will bring enough tax dollars to the city to justify taxpayer funding for the complex. Kammrath is a commercial real estate adviser who has done hundreds of studies on developments, and he said voters can't be assured Wrigleyville will open when the stadium debuts in 2013 because of an oversupply of retail and restaurant space in a tough economy.
"I don't think Wrigleyville West is going to happen anytime soon and there's no commitment that it will," the Mesa resident said.
Kammrath argues there's no legal obligation to build the spring training facility at Riverview rather than at other locations that have been considered, or to cap city expenses at $99 million. The plan has changed vastly since early proposals that Mesa would spend $25 million while regional tourism dollars would fund the complex like other West Valley facilities, he said. Lawmakers failed to get regional funding this spring and left Mesa to fund the complex on its own.
The city will fund the complex by selling thousands of acres of land in Pinal County that were bought for water rights in the 1980s but are no longer needed after Mesa secured other sources.
Kammrath agrees with Mesa that all of Arizona benefits from the Cubs, but he said the state should pay for more of the cost. He proposes that small businesses could buy shares in the new complex.
Kammrath said the Cubs could leave Mesa but argues with Smith that the complex shouldn't be entirely funded by city residents out of fear the Cubs will leave.
"He says we can't afford to let this happen because it will be a disaster," Kammrath said. "And we think while this would be a loss, we don't think it will be a disaster."
The Cubs would likely invest millions in Wrigleyville West, Lufrano said. The development would be built in phases with some parts being constructed with the new complex.
The complex requires voters to approve Proposition 420, which authorizes the city to spend more than $1.5 million on a sports facility. Also, Question 2 would raise the hotel bed tax from 3 percent to 5 percent, with funds supporting the stadium and tourism promotion.
The complex would support the Cubs' operational headquarters, which employs 50 to 300 employees at various times to oversee the draft, recruiting, rehab and more, Lufrano said.
"It's more than just 16 games in the spring to us," he said. "It's a year-round operation and making sure that our organization has the best in baseball."