Concerns about public safety, economic development and revitalizing downtown formed the bulk of a discussion about what residents felt aspiring Mesa leaders should focus on right away if elected.
"It just feels like Mesa has lost out on everything," said Lyle Reed, a District 5 resident attending Tuesday night's mayoral and District 5 City Council candidate forum. Reed was there to make up his mind between Rex Griswold and Scott Smith, both contenders for mayor in the May 20 runoff.
Another resident had a litany of concerns, including car thefts, home invasions, assault and violent crimes in west Mesa.
Public safety is the most important mandate for a city, Griswold said, adding that since hiring a new police chief (George Gascón), the city witnessed a 5 percent reduction in its crime rate by holding his commanders responsible.
"If you don't perform, you don't have a job. That sounds tough, but that's how things get done," Griswold said.
District 5 council candidate Phil Austin suggested the need to use high-technology resources to help tackle crime.
All of the candidates stressed the need to build on the foundation of the high quality of public education in Mesa in response to a question about the city's focus on secondary and higher education. They also tied it to attracting high-tech companies to Mesa.
Collaboration is key, said Griswold, listing the city's use of the Mesa schools' swimming pools as an example.
Smith said not just pools, but the city's use of the school gyms and Little League fields is sometimes taken for granted.
He lamented reduced library hours and said that's something he would find the funding for to restore.
District 5 council candidate Dina Higgins noted that aside from Mesa schools, other entities, including the East Valley Institute of Technology and Mesa Community College are resources the city needs to utilize, especially when marketing to companies interested in relocating to Mesa.
"EVIT is ready to set up any program companies need," Higgins said, adding the flexibility in classes is something to be marketed.
A question about how to attract a high-profile technology company to Mesa drew regret from Smith.
He cited the time Google was looking to move to an Arizona city and how the very mention of Mesa would be mocked.
"That was a low point," Smith said.
He pointed out, instead, that things can only look up for a city with the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, poised for tremendous growth in the southeast Mesa region, as well as Falcon Field - the fourth-busiest general aviation airport in the nation.
"We have unbelievably daunting problems, but our opportunities are something other cities would kill for," Smith said.
Griswold said for a city with both executive and affordable housing, educational resources such as Arizona State University Polytechnic and great freeway access, Mesa has already attracted attention.
He cited Sabena Airline Training Center among companies that have relocated to Mesa.
"You wouldn't have to drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get to work," Griswold said.
He added that for a prosperous downtown, new rooftops and condos are the need of the hour, especially for younger people looking for a "lifestyle" in which they would be able to "walk to a Starbucks" near their homes.
Smith said downtown Mesa first needs an identity.
"Downtown Mesa is not downtown Tempe," Smith said. "We have to create flexibility to build without restrictions."
District 5 resident Mory LaShier later said he wanted more specific answers about downtown revitalization.
"We have a Taj Mahal (Mesa Arts Center) in a Mayberry downtown," LaShier said. "You have to have places to go, but it's so dead at night."
Mesa recently received a higher credit rating from Standard and Poor's for the first time in more than a decade. That translates to paying lower interest and reduced insurance expenses for city bonds being sold.
A question about how the mayoral candidates would restructure government to retain those ratings prompted Smith to say he already would run the city as if the economy is in recession.
"I don't think the worst time is behind us," Smith said. He added that the city would have to decide its priorities and spend accordingly.
"If maintaining bond rating is a priority, then we'll make it that," Smith said. "But if public safety is a priority, and it should be, we'll need to work on that."
Griswold said the improved bond rating resulted because the city had to suck up and make tough decisions - something Wall Street noticed -
decisions such as reducing library hours, he said.
"You have to tell people why you're taking hard decisions to help the city," Griswold said.
Hard decisions aside, for others, such as 25-year-resident Ed Spolidoro, increased crime and "a seemingly nonissue" such as poorly lit street signs are pressing concerns that seem to fly off the radar screens for leaders.
"When you drive at night and the street signs are not lit, it's real hard, especially for us older citizens," Spolidoro said. "These may not sound important but these are the kinds of things that affect us in our daily lives."