Mesa first set out 11 years ago to improve a dreary downtown corner by replacing some old buildings, one of which housed a place called Bailey’s Brake Shop.
Instead of getting a shiny new corner, the city got sued by the brake shop owner.
Then a court ruled against the city in a landmark property rights decision.
And the city got bad press nationwide, including from a “60 Minutes” piece by legendary journalist Mike Wallace.
A decade after the debacle began, the city is finally doing something on the mostly empty plot that surrounds Bailey’s.
The plan involves covering 700 feet of chain-link fence with a printed screen that promotes downtown Mesa. It’s the only improvement the city has made since erecting the fence years ago.
Mesa still wants the site redeveloped. But officials know they can’t force the issue as long as Bailey’s remains in the center of the property.
The sign isn’t as much about sprucing up the site as it is about tapping into its advertising potential, said Shea Joachim, an economic development project manager.
“We’ve got an opportunity to promote the area on a very visible corner,” he said. “Let’s see if we can take advantage of that.”
For once, brake shop owner Randy Bailey agrees with what the city is doing with the property surrounding his business.
“I think it’s a good idea to dress it up a little bit and beautify it,” Bailey said on a recent afternoon while finishing with the day’s last customers.
Bailey enjoys better relations with Mesa now.
The city consulted Bailey about the signs early on to make sure it wouldn’t block his business. And when Mesa formed an advisory group for the Metro light-rail construction, Mayor Scott Smith approached Bailey to join. The old dispute hasn’t affected how he works with the city now.
“That was with the old council,” he said. “That was in the past.”
Bailey clashed with Mesa when the City Council voted in 2000 to redevelop what it saw as prime commercial land at the northwest corner of Main Street and Country Club Drive. The 5.2-acre site was home to an old gas station that sold lamps, a beauty salon and several other businesses. All the buildings were to be razed so Lenhart’s Ace Hardware could move from its downtown location to a larger, more visible site.
Bailey rejected the buyout offer as too little to pay for relocation. When the city moved to force Bailey out through eminent domain, he sued.
A civil liberties law firm, the Institute for Justice, took Bailey’s case. It argued the city can’t force one business to sell its property so the city can resell the land to another private interest. Mesa argued the redevelopment had a public purpose by removing blight. It reasoned a redeveloped property would improve property values, create jobs and increase tax revenue.
The Arizona Court of Appeals sided with Bailey in 2003, saying the effort didn’t meet the state Constitution’s public use requirement. That year, the Arizona Legislature drafted a law making it harder for local governments to use eminent domain.
Bailey has gone on to be the face of what some consider eminent domain abuse. In his shop, a poster shows him standing in front of his building and tells of his David versus Goliath struggle. A bookshelf holds a VHS copy of the “60 Minutes” episode.
Bailey said he still gets calls from across the nation for advice on how to beat City Hall. It’s fresh in customers’ minds, too.
“I still get people every day who remember that,” he said.
The city hasn’t tried to force him out since, and nobody’s offered to buy him out. Lenhart’s owns a parcel next to Bailey, with Mesa owning the remainder.
The city expects to install the mesh print in a couple months, Joachim said. The panels should last three to five years. Mesa hasn’t estimated the cost.
Mesa plans 35 panels that are 5 feet tall and 20 feet wide, each focusing on themes like dining, shopping, the arts, entertainment and more. The city plans to shuffle the panels on the fence to prevent the corner from looking static.
The controversial site should be more attractive to developers when light rail arrives in 2016, said David Short, executive director of the Downtown Mesa Association. The panels are a good interim way to improve its appearance, he said.
“That’s a gateway intersection on Main Street to downtown so I think whatever happens there in the messaging will be better than what’s currently there,” Short said. “Every little bit helps.”
Bailey looks forward to light rail as well — even though it requires taking some private land to widen the road and build park-and-ride lots. The city must provide fair compensation and not hand over land to other businesses, he said.
“You’ve got to have eminent domain,” Bailey said. “It’s a tool you have to use but not for private gain.”
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