A Mesa nonprofit group is working to open a center for day laborers in the city without any government funding.
Neighborhood and taxpayer opposition last year sank the city’s efforts to build a center for day laborers, who gather each day on street corners in central Mesa hoping to pick up work.
Pat Gilbert, executive director of Mesa Community Action Network, or Mesa-CAN, which operates the East Valley Men’s Center shelter and other antipoverty programs in the area, vowed his group’s new effort would not rely on government funds.
The center would be one component of a campus the group plans to put on a property it has in escrow at 438 S. Drew, near Broadway Road and Center Street.
The agency typically uses a mix of public and private funding for its programs, but Gilbert said he felt it would be best to stay away from public funding to set up a spot where day laborers can wait for prospective employers to come to them, rather than lining city sidewalks.
Many of the laborers are believed to be undocumented workers from Mexico. Statistics are scarce, but the hotbutton topic of illegal immigration is enough to steer Gilbert away from seeking public funds.
"This program stirs enough possible controversy that it behooves us to do everything we can to avoid entanglements with government," Gilbert said.
A day labor center opened in May at 501 S. Arizona Ave. in Chandler, adjacent to the Iglesia Metodista Libre church which operates it.
Last week, a group launched a state initiative to ban most public assistance to illegal migrants. Many backers said they were stirred to act after a day labor center opened in north Phoenix.
The Mesa group still must obtain a use permit from the City Council, which had sought to establish a center after a task force’s recommendation.
Manny Cortez was one of the 22 task force members behind that 2000 report,
and now he’s drumming up council support for MesaCAN’s plan. Cortez said that "as long as the center didn’t use city money," he believes some council members will support it.
Gilbert said MesaCAN’s application for a use permit will probably reach the council in October, and he hopes to have the center up and running by the beginning of next year.
MesaCAN plans to move its food bank and thrift store to larger digs on the new site regardless of whether the labor center is approved. It also plans a community garden, English classes and a branch of the Chicanos por la Causa Credit Union, to offer lower-income families an alternative to check-cashing businesses.
"We’re not just putting up an awning and a few Port-AJohns," said Jim Davidson, a former City Council member who supported a city-run day labor center and is now on MesaCAN’s board of directors. "This is going to be a real fix to the problem."
MesaCAN will hold its first neighborhood meeting about the plan at 6 p.m. Monday at First Presbyterian Church, 161 N. Mesa Drive. Davidson said informal contacts with neighboring property owners have drawn mixed response to the proposed day labor center.
Frank DeRosa, who owns Advanced Paper Industries on the southeast corner of Drew and Broadway, hadn’t heard anything about the center before Monday. He worried about the possibility of drinking, drug use and fighting by the laborers.
He said day labor centers are "a good idea," but they should be close to government hubs where police and other officials could supervise them more closely, such as the county complex near Mesa Drive and Baseline Road.
"That’s where something like that belongs, not up here where people are trying to maintain property values," he said.
Gilbert said rules of conduct would be enforced among the the laborers using the center, and those who can’t find work can pitch in at some of MesaCAN’s other enterprises on the property.
"It’s our intention to leave the place cleaner at the end of the day than it was at the beginning," he said.
Cortez emphasized that laborers of every ethnic group and legal status would be welcomed by the center: "They don’t particularly enjoy standing on the side of the road, having people look down on them."