April 18, 2005
The $94 million Mesa Arts Center, by far the most visible outcome of the quality- of-life sales tax increase approved by city voters in 1998, is seven acres of art galleries and studios, classrooms, theaters, walkways and alcoves in the heart of downtown.
It may be intended as a public playground of sorts, but the grounds are watched by municipal security guards 24 hours a day, and there will be four to six at all times by the start of the first theatrical season this fall, said Steve McFerron, operations manager for the center.
Guards aren’t necessarily there to keep people out, he said, but to bring them in.
"We want people to come to the facility any time of day or night and feel they are safe," he said. "It gives them a comfort level."
The additional lighting proposed for downtown lots will serve much the same purpose, said Tom Verploegen, executive director of Mesa Town Center.
The agency is the economic development arm of Mesa’s downtown redevelopment area and oversees parking.
"I think downtown is relatively safe at night, but because it’s so dimly lit it’s not perceived as safe," he said.
Parking will be free around the arts center most nights, but a $5 charge is planned for the largest events.
The lot attendants and the money collected are almost more for public safety than anything else, Verploegen said.
Four bright blue light poles housing emergency phones have been installed around the center. McFerron said they haven’t been activated yet, but calls probably will be routed directly to 911 operators who will decide whether they warrant police or security guard intervention.
Likewise, art center security guards will have direct radio contact with the police department, McFerron said.
Mesa police spokesman Sgt. Chuck Trapani said the department has never had to protect a facility quite like the Mesa Arts Center, and the force will be a little more pressed this fall once the center opens its four theaters, seating a total of nearly 2,500.
Off-duty officers can help with the biggest events when necessary, and he said the force will be able to handle most events.
"Obviously we’re not going to attract the Marilyn Mansons, the really big names," Trapani said.
The biggest threat to safety at the arts center, perceived or otherwise, may be to the neighborhoods near the center.
City officials have been fighting to bring people downtown since the Superstition Freeway carved out a new commercial corridor two miles south of Main Street almost 30 years ago.
Main Street’s storefronts are mostly filled now by antique stores, restaurants, shops, and a few art galleries ready to feed off the center.
But further south of Main the arts center is surrounded by a mix of industrial areas and houses, some used for halfway homes.
And while some of the nearby residential areas have used their historic qualities to advantage, others could be on the verge of sliding into decline, said Vince Anderson, a retired Mesa library director.
Once these neighborhoods do, they could hurt the fortunes of the arts center, he said.
"If it gets real bad it could very well, because all that deterioration will go back toward the center of the city," he said.