Fabian De La Rosa has a simple rule for knowing who will stop in his downtown Mesa shop: If they park their car in front of his Lamb’s Shoe Repair, they’re going to walk through his doors.
That’s great for him — but it shows people aren’t walking the often empty downtown sidewalks to discover other shops and restaurants.
“Every day it’s kind of dead,” De La Rosa said.
All kinds of efforts have been tried over the years to fill downtown sidewalks with people, but the results have been mixed at best.
Now, merchants and the city are rolling out a starkly different strategy to enliven downtown.
One of the main ways of boosting downtown for years was hosting a few annual events that drew tens of thousands of people — at a huge cost to the city. The new plan involves holding a much larger number of small events, even if they attract just a few hundred people, and clustering them on the same day. Some events are monthly or even weekly and are intended to boost the flow of regular visitors.
“It presents more opportunities for people to come downtown and get used to coming downtown more than once a year,” said George Notarpole, owner of History By George. “We need to get people used to coming down.”
The smaller-is-better approach came partly out of necessity. Mesa sponsored a variety of huge events over the years, including Citrus Days, the Fine Folk Festival and Merry Main Street. The big events cost more than $100,000 each and were a burden to produce, which made them easy targets to cut during budget woes over the years.
Merchants saw a need to fill the void, but they couldn’t invest the time or money to replicate events on that scale. One of the key early ideas was MACFest, where artists show and sell their work at the Mesa Arts Center every Saturday morning from fall through spring. That was the brainchild of Johann Zietsman, outgoing director of the Mesa Arts and Culture Department.
MACFest visitors tell volunteers at the event that they want more reasons to come downtown, said Vern Mathern, chairman of the festival’s organizing committee.
“A lot of people say this is the kind of thing that Mesa needs to do,” Mathern said. “I don’t think there’s much question that MACFest has been a catalyst for bringing people downtown.”
MACFest and Zietsman’s vision attracted Ronald Floyd to open his Sun Dust Gallery downtown in September. Floyd figured his gallery of Arizona artists would be a perfect fit, and he could be part of revitalizing downtown.
Even in the few months he’s been open, Floyd has seen merchants more open to extending hours to participate in events. “The attitude is shifting a little bit,” Floyd said.
An early November weekend serves as a good example of the new strategy. Events included the Old West Days Festival and BlissFest 2009, joined by the monthly 2nd Friday arts event and the weekly MACFest. Some merchants extended hours into the evening to lure customers.
The events are put on by merchants or the Downtown Mesa Association, a nonprofit group that promotes economic development. The association wants to have even more small events, some clustered together by theme, said executive director Tom Verploegen. Unlike the big events, the small ones are more sustainable and affordable because city staff has little or no involvement.
“They’re a little more recession-proof because of the volunteers, and it’s not like there’s a lot of public dollars going into them,” Verploegen said.
The downtown association still wants to do a few signature events a year that draw regional crowds, but it’s researching candidates to make sure they’re good fits for Mesa. It also doesn’t want to compete with successful events nearby, such as the annual arts festival or New Year’s Eve party in downtown Tempe.
Mesa merchants say the small events have already helped. Book Gallery manager Mike Pierson said people attending Oktoberfest stopped in and said they never knew the 20-year-old store was there. Some had never been downtown.
But most important to Pierson was that people who have stopped for special events have returned during the week to browse — and spend.
Pierson said more merchants need to extend hours to take advantage of the customers and give them even more reasons to visit downtown, he said.
“Merchants have to see the big picture,” he said.
Some merchants are frustrated that others are unwilling to extend business hours because there is no guarantee they will get any extra customers during the events. And some groups see other events as competition.
“One church complained you were having an event the same time as their carnival,” Notarpole said. “They just don’t see the fact that the more, the merrier.”
Even the biggest supporters of the new events say the strategy has not boosted the fortunes of merchants yet. They figure it will take time to build individual events, boost the downtown’s visibility and reshape the area’s image.
The recession has made customers even more reluctant to spend, many merchants said, but they figure they have to keep at it until the economy and attitudes change.
“I think everything will work out,” Floyd said. “It’s just going to take a while and it’s going to have to be a sustained effort.”