Lars Olofsson walked around downtown Mesa late Thursday afternoon, stopped to peer inside the Picnic Company, a sandwich shop, only to realize it was closed for the day. Olofsson rolled his eyes.
“I’m looking for a place to get a bite to eat,” said Olofsson, a Swedish visitor. He was surprised the shop was closed, as well as at the lack of pedestrians along the “quaint” downtown.
“What’s up with that?” asked Olofsson, as he walked toward a Subway sandwich shop on Robson and Main Street.
The Downtown Mesa Association, a local nonprofit that maintains and promotes the one-square-mile area, is trying to turn things around on exactly that much-deliberated question.
Top association representatives this week presented a five-point vision plan to Mesa City Council, aimed at energizing downtown, to revitalize downtown into a vibrant, active, diverse destination, especially after business hours.
“That would be nice, because right now, it gets scary at night,” said Ashley Williams, a receptionist at Blossom Salon & Boutique, which stays open until 8 p.m. twice a week.
The downtown association’s plans hinge on encouraging high-density housing, more office space and greater dining options than currently exist. It’s along the lines of the kind of development hoped for along the light rail corridor west of downtown, between Country Club Drive and the Tempe city limits along Main Street. Think loft housing on the upper floors, with residents being able to walk downstairs to enjoy a Chinese, or a southwestern meal.
Association President Tom Verploegen said the idea, among other things, is to keep downtown pedestrian-friendly and suggested adding a Latino marketplace or cultural complex in light of the increasingly changing demographic, as well as a way to attract visitors “culturally and generationally inclusive.”
Right now, after 5 or 6 p.m., downtown might as well be dead.
The beautiful $14 million streetscape improvements made in recent years are visible. Downtown is clean and well-maintained, thanks to the association, which collects assessments from downtown properties, under the designation of a Special Improvement District. But for all the red-brick pavements and alleys and trees and graffiti-removal efforts, along with regular events like Friday Night Out or MACFest that draw thousands of visitors, even the $100 million world-class Mesa Arts Center facility, nothing seems enough to get downtown abuzz on a daily basis.
Verploegen believes no one entity can infuse activity by itself, which goes back to the live, work, play concept.
“That’s all tied to that word, vibrant,” said Verploegen. “How do you make it more pulsating, live and active?”
The frustration now for shoppers is only seeing a few restaurants and shops open most evenings.
Right now, the arts center patrons have limited choices to dine before a show. Many are happy with de la Cruz Bistro, a wine bar and restaurant that opened last fall. It’s open until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. But you’re out of luck if you go on a Sunday because it’s closed.
As city council members heard the association’s presentation, Mayor Scott Smith laid out his thoughts plain and clear. Smith said that the association, beyond facilitating events and business promotion, needs to discuss how — limited money aside — it can do more beyond supporting downtown’s organize activities. Or, he said, there may need to be another alternative to fill a void of someone “being in charge.”
“You gotta have one entity that drives programs and also facilitates others,” Smith said. “The more vibrancy there is, the better off we all are.”
The association collects money to maintain the area, regulate parking and help promote downtown. Total assessments average about $500,000 annually.
City official are also working on simplifying investment in downtown, with more flexible building codes, and other ways to offset what Smith termed a “regulatory overload” without compromising public safety.
Smith said the council’s emphasis on downtown is for more practical reasons than anything warm and fuzzy: The city is the largest downtown land owner, with large plots like the 25-acre parcel near University and Mesa drives lying vacant for years after the city took ownership to redevelop the land, partly using eminent domain.
“We need a vibrant downtown because it signifies the health of the city. It’s also the center of government,” said Smith. He made note of that 25-acre site as an “unproductive land ... not contributing to Mesa’s economy, which the city is paying for now to maintain.”
What’s also lacking is a major educational presence. Mesa Community College is close to buying the space it currently leases from the city, across 37,000 square feet on Centennial Way. But that’s far short of earlier plans to expand its downtown presence. An education center remains on the downtown association’s vision plan.
It isn’t like things haven’t been tried recently. Several downtown merchants have banded together to promote regular events to generate foot traffic. Like Friday Night Out. Or cruising along Main — which last week drew a crowd of 2,000 — or MACFest, an arts and crafts festival featuring local artists.
Anita Stapleton, owner of Jersey Girl Cafe, one of the key organizers of Friday Night Out, said it’s hard to change people’s deep-rooted perceptions about downtown, which in turn makes it tough to market it as a go-to destination. She is, however, encouraged by the Friday turnout, which averages 2,000 people, and believes these things need some time to take off. More stores are staying open late and participating in raffles and such, she said.
Not everyone’s convinced that’s enough.
Jodi Hatfield, owner of Blossom Salon & Boutique, said Friday Night Out doesn’t help much. She kept the store open for the special events for a while, but said business just didn’t pick up.
“It isn’t geared to the kind of people who would come to our store,” said Hatfield, standing behind a counter filled snazzy necklaces, rings and nail polishes, a blow dryer buzzing in the background.
Hatfield calls downtown charming, but says the events just don’t attract the kind of clientele that would come into her store. Her suggestion: More hip, live music bands and ethnic restaurants. That should be a positive affirmation for the association’s proposal.
Stapleton said regardless, some businesses won’t stay open late, and for those that do, they have to have patience, because sales may not happen the first week, or month or few months.
“People may not buy anything from you today, but over time, they’ll start noticing,” Stapleton said.
Lissa Kennel, who runs Lissa’s Shop, which sells eclectic home decor and apparel, said business has been slow for the three years she’s been here, but she’s optimistic.
“I’m surviving,” said Kennel, who’s still waiting to see results by staying open late, offering free cookies and candies to attract visitors. She wishes for more eclectic stores, even if it creates competition, just to have a dynamic vibe.
Wisconsin resident Bob Lexa, a winter visitor, stepped inside Lissa’s Shop, walked by an anise-scented candle, toy carousels, honey-shaped starfish soap, and praised Lissa for the unique items there. He said downtown looks much nicer than it did five or six years ago, when “there seemed to be a lot of antique shops.
Now there’s a lot of variety and attractive things you wouldn’t see anywhere, but there could be more.”