SALT LAKE CITY - Top leaders of the Mormon Church are appealing to Gov. Janet Napolitano for help in revitalizing downtown Mesa, in order to protect the value of the city's oldest worship site.
After years of watching largely futile efforts to lift the downtown's doldrums, church officials believe Mesa could be poised for success with a $95 million arts center now under construction. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is even willing to invest some of its money and experience in neighborhood projects to support the downtown area, which includes the Arizona Mormon Temple.
But the church won't act without further commitments from city and state governments, Napolitano was told Friday during a series of meetings with the church's worldwide leadership in Salt Lake City.
"We can do more than we have if there's a coordinated effort and we can get our timing together," said Keith McMullin, a counselor to the presiding bishop, who oversees budget and administrative matters. "But we do have limited resources."
Church officials said governments need to find more ways to develop activities appropriate for entire families, to add to the amount of affordable, safe housing and to boost business growth.
Napolitano responded Mesa has the primary responsibility for redeveloping its own downtown. But Napolitano said she will fight to protect state funding for arts programs, so the Mesa Arts Center will have more viable programs to attract patrons.
The governor said she also will explore whether the state housing department could direct more attention to Mesa's downtown.
The future of Mesa's downtown was first raised during a private, 30-minute meeting between Napolitano's delegation and Gordon B. Hinckley, the 94-year-old spiritual leader of the church. Napolitano said afterward Hinckley emphasized the church usually avoids direct involvement in public policy debates except when they deal with moral issues important to the church such as alcohol and gambling.
But the Mesa temple is among the church's oldest, and continues to be a religious pillar for many Arizona Mormons. So the fate of the surrounding downtown holds great interest.
McMullin and other church officials also were concerned about the lack of mass transportation to serve the area, compared to a light-rail line that now operates across Salt Lake City.
The first 20-mile section of light rail from Phoenix is scheduled to end on Main Street near Dobson Road. Church officials would like to see that extended east through downtown Mesa to the temple grounds.
"I'm not sure how to get it done," McMullin said. "But it sure is an item of interest."
Roc Arnett, president of East Valley Partnership and a Mormon member of Napolitano's delegation, said a proposed extension of Maricopa County's half-cent transportation sales tax under Proposition 400 to be voted on Nov. 2 would fund extending the light-rail corridor.
But support for the tax places the church at odds with some of its most prominent members — Mormon lawmakers from the East Valley who are leading opposition to Proposition 400. Such divisions within the church aren't commonly known, but became a theme for Napolitano's entire trip. As Napolitano headed to the airport at the end of the day, the governor said she left with a different outlook about the Mormon religion.
"I think that I was confusing some of the public policy stances of the ultraconservative members of the church with the views of the (Mormon) Church," Napolitano said. "There really is a difference in terms of welfare, in terms of children, in terms of public education. As I have said, I really think this will make me a better governor."