The future of downtown Mesa entered uncertain territory as its top leaders resigned in the wake of growing tensions.
The president and vice president of the Downtown Mesa Association quit in a closed-door meeting with the board of directors this week. Their departures follow growing criticism from merchants that the non-profit group hasn’t brought more people and business downtown. The changes are the biggest in the organization’s 25-year history.
Many players in downtown welcomed the change, even as they said they appreciated the progress the DMA has made in cleaning up the city center.
Vice Mayor Kyle Jones said he knows some merchants have been asking for more from the DMA. He’s been an ex-officio DMA board member for seven years and has been in close contact with downtown issues.
“I have been sensing some frustration from some folks who are wanting to step it up to the next level," Jones said. “When you sit back and look at it, change can be a very positive thing, which in no way diminishes what has been done in the past.”
The DMA board met Tuesday in an unusual special meeting to discuss its structure. President Tom Verploegen and vice president Sharon Winter submitted resignations at that time.
Verploegen left to take a job in Oklahoma City after being the organization’s only president. Winter resigned without a job.
The downtown merchants who comprise the DMA board called the meeting to consider replacing Verploegen and Winter’s positions with board members who are merchants and who would oversee daily operations. Before the meeting, several board members told the Tribune they did not plan to oust anybody, but that they looked to create different positions and responsibilities.
Merchants had complained the downtown group needed a more aggressive marketing campaign and better attendance at events it organized. Some of the more recent and successful events have been organized and funded by independent merchant groups, including the Second Friday gatherings.
Verploegen accepted a marketing job with a downtown Oklahoma City organization before Tuesday’s meeting, and said he’d been considering career options as merchants have looked at shaking up how downtown Mesa is managed.
“There’s always some kind of rumblings going on downtown, but the Oklahoma City job is really what enticed me,” he said.
Verploegen started in 1984 as president when the DMA was founded. Winter had been there 19 years.
The changes came with some controversy. The DMA board of downtown merchants assembled Tuesday and called to eject the public because personnel matters could be discussed, but several members objected because the agenda did not address that.
That raised a red flag with Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, who is also an attorney, saying he assumed this kind of matter would be open to the public. Organizations that get public funds can call closed-door sessions for personnel matters in advance, but the DMA board did not do that. Kavanaugh said he was concerned the board didn’t let the public in on its deliberations.
“If they were going to do it, they should at least advertise it as such,” he said.
Several DMA board members did not return phone calls for comment. Last week, several members told the Tribune they were looking to have board members serve in the top posts so the downtown merchants would have more control over daily operations.
Mayor Scott Smith has criticized downtown efforts and called for the DMA to work harder on economic development by making downtown more vibrant.
“I’ve been pretty consistent in saying that I hope the DMA can be the kind of organization that truly can help meet the needs of its civic members downtown but also can promote downtown and help it become the place and the economic driver that we believe it can become," he said. “I hope people don’t read too much into it, and yet any time you have change, it’s both a little unnerving and exciting for everybody.”