To see the future of west Mesa, look to the abandoned Target store at Main Street and Dobson. Or move east and see the shell of the old JCPenny building and the empty parking lots of former car dealerships.
Near Fiesta Mall, you’ll see similar desolation in the boarded-up Bennigan’s restaurant and nearly vacant strip malls close to it.
West Mesa will look more and more like these places in the next few years as many of the area’s most visible businesses — car dealerships, "big box" stores, a hospital and more — leave for new developments or simply close down.
This exodus will transform once-thriving buildings into bleak carcasses, a prospect that has caused concern for residents and city leaders.
But west Mesa is hardly a lost cause.
While land owners and city officials say some properties will sit vacant for years, the departures are also priming the area for a major transformation.
More than $1 billion of new buildings are proposed, under way or completed.
These new stores, movie theaters and restaurants have the potential to transform an area that’s declined for more than a decade into a hub of activity as good as or better than before.
West Mesa has been given a bad rap lately, which area activist Dave Richins said is partly because many improvements are incremental or just taking shape.
"It’s all kind of under the radar," said Richins, cochairman of the Mesa Grande Community Alliance. "People don’t realize it, especially with Riverview, but there’s going to be a tremendous amount of reinvestment here."
In the meantime, residents will have to endure a sometimes bumpy transition.
Many of the biggest stores are set to leave for the Mesa Riverview shopping center, including Wal-Mart on Main Street at Alma School Road.
Riverview is also luring several stores from shopping centers near Fiesta Mall, including Bed Bath and Beyond, Circuit City and Petco.
Also, the area’s Honda, GMC, Toyota and Nissan dealers plan to leave for new auto malls, following a recently departed Buick dealer. Mesa Banner Hospital at Country Club Drive and Brown Road will also shut down.
These departures are an acceleration of losses in recent years that include the Motorola plant on west Broadway Road at Dobson and Target and JCPenny at Main and Dobson.
Fiesta Mall remains full and was updated in the 1990s, but most of the aging shopping centers around it have lost tenants over the years and fallen into disrepair.
The Fiesta Mall area will suffer another blow by losing Robinson-May or Macy’s. Their parent companies merged and have told mall owner Westcor that just one will remain, though the combined corporation hasn’t yet figured out the details.
It’s difficult to predict what’s next for all the empty properties near the mall, said Richard Mulligan, the city’s economic development director. Their owners will drive the change, and many of them are studying the problem or keeping plans to themselves.
The transition will be tough at times, Mulligan said, because so many businesses are changing at once. Mulligan said the city also has to overcome the perception, fair or not, of being a boring, ultraconservative community.
"Image becomes a challenge for us at times," Mulligan said. "That’s why projects like the arts center and Riverview are so important to us."
The city is optimistic about Fiesta Mall’s future because of Westcor’s successful track record with other Valley centers, Mulligan said.
Westcor plans a major renovation but the details are still a mystery. The company isn’t ready to reveal plans, vice president David Scholl said. Some planning must wait until Westcor learns which store will go away.
"Until we know which one they’re keeping and which one they’re giving up, we can’t really have a finished product," Scholl said.
The properties around the mall are a greater challenge. A city study found the area has too much retail space and that one or more centers should make way for housing or another use, Mulligan said.
Some owners have intentionally left vacant storefronts so it’s easier to renovate or rebuild. Others will wait to make changes until leases run out. Those timing issues greatly complicate improvement plans, Mulligan said.
"They’re tough projects to pull off," he said.
Some encouraging projects will take shape even as businesses leave in the next two years.
Riverview should break ground in August, bringing Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, movie theaters and dozens of new stores and restaurants. The project will have four or five new car dealerships, which Mulligan said will offset the impact of losing existing facilities.
Light-rail construction will start this year on Main Street, taking the line to Tri City Pavilions. City officials see the line as a catalyst to redevelop blighted areas along Main, including the old Target. Rail will also improve the former Penny site. A planned parkand-ride lot requires Mesa to tear down the old building.
And demolition is almost complete on the old Motorola plant, making way for an industrial park. The park’s design and tenants will send an important signal that good things are happening, Mulligan said.
Residents should find encouragement in recent improvements:
• The $94.5 million Mesa Arts Center.
• The new Target that replaced a vacant Montgomery Ward building near Fiesta Mall.
• An upgrade of the Mesa Sheraton to a Merritt.
• Downtown projects that include renovating the longempty building called One Macdonald Center.