What follows is a sentence that could have been written anytime during the past 40 years:
Downtown Mesa needs help.
That remains true despite the truly classy makeover of Main Street between Country Club and Mesa drives, despite the astonishing new arts center, despite the ongoing renovation of two major buildings, despite a slow influx of art galleries and other upscale enterprises, and despite the gentrification of some residential neighborhoods.
Downtown Mesa needs help because, despite what’s happening along the narrow Main Street corridor, much of the surrounding area is distressed. East and west of that corridor, Main Street is dirt-ugly. Most of the nearby housing stock is aging and some neighborhoods struggle with poverty and the tensions brought on by changing ethnicity.
In other words, the renascent stretch of Main Street has yet to become the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats. Now the Mormon Church wants to help.
Gov. Janet Napolitano announced a week ago that she would travel to Salt Lake City to see if she could figure out what drives some of the conservative Mormon politicians she has to deal with in the Legislature. Recent election results portend even more clashes next year between them and the more liberal governor.
But that wasn’t the topic that made the biggest headline from Napolitano’s trip on Friday. What did was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ interest in boosting downtown Mesa — help that would be conditional, depending on whether tax dollars come into play.
Why church leaders waited until the governor showed up to make this known is something of a mystery. And why they made their pitch to the governor, instead of to city leaders, is also a mystery. The governor doesn’t do urban renewal; that’s a city’s job.
What is clear is why the church is interested in this particular downtown. Since the 1920s it has been home to Arizona’s oldest Mormon temple, not merely a place of worship but also the destination of pilgrimages. Apparently it no longer behooves the church to abide the temple’s unkempt surroundings.
A couple thoughts on that.
If the religious benefits of spiffing up the surrounding area justify the effort, then the church should be willing to ante up on its own.
And if the secular benefits dictate likewise, then business dollars and tax dollars should flow regardless of any religious ramifications.
But to sink public money into such efforts merely because the church wants nicer surroundings may smack of favoritism, and may flout at least the spirit of the First Amendment.
Yes, downtown Mesa needs help. But the questions of who helps, and how, and why, deserve careful answers.