Tom Verploegen, president of the Downtown Mesa Association, likes to show downtown Mesa skeptics his "then" and "now" pictures.
Twenty-five years ago Main Street was sprinkled with wig and pawn shops and gun stores. Today it is elaborately landscaped, lined with nicely restored historic buildings and sidewalk cafes and is home to a world-class arts center.
Indeed, there has been some progress in the past two-and-a-half decades in Mesa's much-maligned downtown, and on Thursday the association took time to reflect on that as it celebrated its 25th anniversary.
The DMA, which maintains parking and public spaces and promotes the central square mile and its businesses, presented awards to the city government, the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau and former Mayor Wayne Pomeroy for their longtime support during an open house at the association's newly refurbished offices.
Pomeroy was a driving force in establishing the association in 1984 after he and other civic boosters convinced the Arizona Legislature to pass a law allowing creation of downtown improvement districts supported by fees on property owners.
The Mesa district, initially called the Mesa Town Center Corp., was the first downtown improvement district in Arizona.
"I was mayor when we decided we needed to have a downtown association, but we didn't put it into effect until three years later," the 86-year-old Pomeroy said in an interview this week. "That's how we got the parking."
At that time downtown business owners believed better parking was the key to attracting more visitors to the Main Street business area, he said. The new association was able to buy up and tear down properties to create new parking areas and access to those areas using money raised from an assessment on property owners.
Through the years, the association has taken on many tasks including graffiti removal, trash collection, organizing special events and providing services to member businesses such as marketing and low-cost advertising.
"When I came, U.S. 60 was having a major impact on downtown," said Verploegen, the chief executive of the association during its entire life. "The Superstition Freeway really pulled a lot of business functions out of downtown. ... It was on life-support."
Still, Verploegen believed the Mesa core could become an attractive community center with many small mom-and-pop businesses. In the intervening years, downtown has benefited from more than 300 commercial developments and major renovations and has had a net increase of 240 businesses, he said. And with the completion of the Mesa Arts Center at Main and Center streets in 2005, downtown had a regional facility that can draw visitors from far beyond the city limits, he said.
But Verploegen concedes that change has been slow, and much remains to be done. Pedestrian foot traffic is still light compared with the more active downtowns in Tempe and Scottsdale. And there still is not much night life.
"We take for granted how far we've come, but we have a long ways to go," he said.
The association may take a bigger role in promoting downtown and attracting investment under a new visioning process started by Mayor Scott Smith.
"We have a very clean, very orderly downtown," Smith said. "Now we need to redefine what we will do with the downtown association, We need to work more closely ... to accomplish things such as more events and more focus on economic development."
The association has drawn up a draft of a five-point concept for the future of downtown Mesa that emphasizes residential development and more office space and high-end dining options. It also emphasizes collaboration between the city, a major investor in downtown and the association.
Verploegen said the association will hold public meetings in May and June to get wider input from downtown stakeholders and citizens before a final plan is adopted.
Crystal Russell, chairwoman of the association's board of directors, said a future key will be extension of the Valley Metro light-rail line to downtown. She said the trains will "re-energize" downtown and make it a more attractive place for visitors.
"I think as we move into the 21st century our love of the private automobile will change," she said. "As we become less super-suburb people, we will live closer to where we work. ... There will be a natural evolution back to the cities."