Vernon “Sonny” Payne recently stepped into the Farm House Restaurant in downtown Gilbert wearing a hat and boots and dark glasses.
He glanced around and took a seat looking out onto Gilbert Road — a street with a historic past and an uncertain future.
"You could sit here and count five cars in three hours" in Gilbert's early days, said Payne, a 66-year-old town native.
Traffic through downtown Gilbert is more congested these days, but most people are just passing through.
Gilbert is exploding in residential, retail and commercial growth. But the town's historical heart has lost residences.
The town has spent thousands of dollars studying how to revitalize downtown, and millions of dollars acquiring land in the downtown corridor. But that hasn't translated into significant development.
Councilman Steve Urie said the town has the desire to redevelop downtown, also known as the Heritage District, but the lack of funds and a clear plan have hampered efforts. "There's an increased interest in the downtown area, but we've got to have the plan in place so everyone knows what it will look like at build-out," Urie said. "If not, it will cause more grief than joy."
Janet Keck, who has owned the Coffee Klatch in the Heritage Court building downtown for more than three years, said the town has not been active enough in luring development downtown.
"Speeding up the process of bringing more businesses downtown would create more foot traffic for us and will help all the businesses down here," Keck said.
Others are more optimistic. David Dietlein, whose Hale Centre Theatre is opening this month, decided to invest $1.8 million to build the family-owned theater downtown.
“Through time, the Heritage District will be very unique,” Dietlein said.
CHARACTER AND EMPTY LOTS
Visitors to downtown Gilbert get a sense of what the East Valley was like before all the growth.
The most prominent landmark is still the town's old water tower, built in 1927 to help curtail a string of fires that swept through the farming town. Many of the building facades — old and new — give the appearance of architecture from decades past.
There is the family-owned Liberty Market, a neighborhood grocery store operating since 1918. Other businesses include a barbershop and beauty salon, a neighborhood saloon and the Norwood Furniture store. A new project, the 40,000-square-foot Heritage Court retail and office building, is only three years old, but built in Victorian and Old West architectural style.
Heading south, the district ends at the original Gilbert High School, a historic two-story building now used as school district offices. Joe's Real Barbecue, a newer establishment in an old brick building, draws patrons from throughout the East Valley. Across from Joe's, Arizona Diamondbacks star Luis Gonzalez recently lent his name to Gonzo's, a sports-themed restaurant catering to families in the former home of Mahogany Run, a restaurant which closed last year.
And inside Heritage Court is Cafe ah Pwah, downtown's only fine dining restaurant.
Next to Gonzo's, the 380-seat Hale Centre Theatre will open July 25 featuring family-oriented musicals and comedies, beginning with three performances a week.
Cafe ah Pwah owner Karen Kapraszewski said she believes the theater will help her restaurant, which she said attracts people from throughout the Valley.
“I think people will be more dressed up if they’re going to see a play or musical, and they might want to come in here and have a nice dinner," Kapraszewski said.
Luring some of these projects has not been cheap.
Gilbert established its redevelopment area in 1990 along Gilbert Road from a quarter-mile south of Guadalupe Road to an eighth of a mile south of Elliot Road. Since then, the town has spent about $10.6 million acquiring land and budgeted about $5 million more for the same purpose. The town also has paid $94,345 to consultants to study downtown and propose development ideas.
The town purchased land for $399,128, then sold the land for $1 to Mercy Housing Southwest to build an 80- to 100-unit senior housing project downtown. Construction is expected to begin in early 2004 and be completed by early 2005, town officials said.
Gilbert also spent $227,628 to buy the tracts of land that the town then sold for $70,000 to Hale Centre Theatre and $50,000 to Mahogany Run, a restaurant that closed and has now become Gonzo's.
"We don't want to do that forever," said Greg Tilque, Gilbert economic development director. The town spent nearly $1.9 million to buy and demolish 30 dilapidated trailer homes in the northwest downtown area. In their place now stands a large, empty dirt lot without a defined future. The trailer park once sat in what the town has identified as its proposed master-planned area west of Gilbert Road between Juniper Avenue south to the Union Pacific Railroad track. The area has the highest number of vacant lots in the downtown area, and therefore the most opportunities for redevelopment.
The town has budgeted $3 million in 2007-08 to demolish an apartment complex in that area. The Gilbert Design Assistance Team, led by the Rio Salado Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, released a report last year that also recommends a greenbelt, referred to as Village Green, in the area anchored by the Hale Centre Theatre.
The town would also like to add a mixed office and retail building just north of Gonzo's similar to Heritage Court, but construction is years away, said Carl Harris-Morgan, Gilbert's community development specialist.
The only public project definitely planned downtown is a $3.6 million "park-and-ride" project at the southwest corner of Page Avenue and Ash Street, west of Gilbert Road that includes 250 parking spaces and two bus shelters. When completed early next year, people will be able to park there to visit downtown and catch express buses to downtown Phoenix.
The project was approved last month by the Gilbert Redevelopment Commission, a five-member group that meets monthly, studies and approves downtown redevelopment projects.
EXODUS OF TOWN HALL
Notably, Gilbert has the only downtown in the East Valley that doesn't include government offices.
Most of the town's government offices left downtown a decade ago. In moving its main offices, the town took one of downtown Gilbert's largest work forces with it.
Every department with the exception of parks and recreation — which remains downtown in the former Town Hall — moved two miles south in 1992 to 20 acres just southeast of Gilbert and Warner roads. An adjacent community development building was constructed at the same site a few years later. And a new public safety complex, which will house the police department, municipal court, prosecutor's office and fire department administration, will open on an adjacent 26-acre site July 21.
Gilbert Town Manager George Pettit said there wasn't enough land available to keep government offices in the downtown area.
"If we stayed, we would have basically demolished everything, spent $10 million for land and there'd be no opportunity for any kind of development," Pettit said. "It would have involved condemnations done on a timely basis, which is not something that made political or practical sense."
Meanwhile, major development is blossoming across Gilbert Road from the new town offices in the form of Gilbert Town Square.
Gilbert Town Square has shops and restaurants that face Gilbert Road as well as some businesses, including a multiscreen movie theater, set back from the main road. Linking the two sections is a road with downtown-style street parking that the town calls the "parade route." The development plan calls for a "pedestrian-oriented" area with shops, public seating areas, water features and areas where people can "congregate and socialize."
Pettit said the 15-acre Gilbert Town Square is not an effort to create another downtown. Rather, Pettit said, Gilbert Town Square will become a "nontraditional" shopping center geared to pedestrians.
Opinions about Gilbert Town Square are mixed.
"It makes you wonder if (town officials) are concentrating on the downtown area or the town square," said Mary Ellen Fresquez, owner of downtown’s Ink It! and a Gilbert Redevelopment Commission member. "It's a little divisive, but it's done."
Gilbert Chamber of Commerce president Kathy Langdon said downtown Gilbert and Gilbert Town Square can complement each other.
"I think they will feed off one another," Langdon said. "It will probably draw a different type of boutique than they would downtown."
Gilbert Town Square may compete with downtown, but farther south lies the true future of retail and business development in the town along the San Tan Freeway stretch of Loop 202, scheduled for completion in 2006. Town officials are working to establish a sales tax base along the future freeway, which will cut through the center of Gilbert. Major "big-box" stores and other national chains are lining up at major intersections, including a possible regional shopping mall and auto mall.
Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman said the San Tan Freeway, not downtown Gilbert, will be the "economic engine" that drives the town's future. But he said that it makes sense to redevelop an "old-town shopping area" in the historical center of town.
"I think it's important," Berman said. "Not everything that's important has to have a financial payoff to it."
Gilbert is one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the United States, adding 1,000 residents per month. Gilbert had 5,717 residents in 1980, 29,188 residents in 1990 and an estimated 143,600 today.
But there are only 284 residential units in the downtown area, a number that has declined during the years as the town acquired land for redevelopment. However, the first new residential projects in downtown Gilbert in years will soon increase that number. The Classic Communities' Arbor Walk, on the downtown area's northwest edge near Gilbert Road and Juniper Avenue, will feature 130 detached condominiums with garages in the rear to promote an urban style. The first residents are expected in November.
"It so happened we found this property in the historic district," said Roger McGrath, vice president of sales and marketing for Classic Communities. "It's very unique (in the East Valley) to have that urban type of environment.”
The other new housing project is the senior housing complex that is expected to be occupied in 1 to two years.
In 1991, Gilbert adopted its first redevelopment plan, outlining a goal to revitalize its core by attracting businesses, residents and customers to a historic, small-town setting.
Twelve years later, the results are mixed. To be sure, downtown Gilbert has maintained its small-town feel. But whether downtown can be called "revitalized" is another question.
Pettit said the town is not trying to create a major urban downtown, but a place with a different look and feel where families can park their car, get out and stay awhile. Ruth Gieszl grew up in the 1930s on the outskirts of Gilbert and is a charter member of the Gilbert Historical Society and a historical museum volunteer. She said what the town is creating now is not reminiscent of Gilbert's downtown from the past. "It's redevelopment, but it isn't restoring it," Gieszl said. "They're making something else out of it."
Downtown business owners continue to hope their investment in the area is wise.
"Everyone's concerned about how it's going to happen," Farm House Restaurant co-owner Sylvia Hilligardt said regarding downtown Gilbert's future. "The public will tell you what needs to happen."
Fresquez said: “I don’t know the dynamic of what will make it happen, but I’m hopeful downtown is up and coming. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”