Classic old lunch counters, once a popular mainstay during downtown Mesa’s height as a thriving retail center, will live on as the former J.J. Newberry’s department store takes on a new high-tech purpose.
The vacant Main Street store’s 1949 lunch counter, still in good shape but missing a few barstools, will be preserved as a memory of a different time while Mesa moves toward its future.
The counter’s restoration is part of the company Launch Pad’s ambitious plans to turn the store into a trendy co-working space where young entrepreneurs attracted by the new ASU@citycenter campus will mingle, exchange ideas and launch high-tech startups.
Mayor John Giles and Councilwoman Jen Duff hailed the project, unveiled last week in a virtual presentation by Launch Pad and Caliber, a Scottsdale-based investment firm and a major downtown Mesa property owner.
Launch Pad is an example of Caliber’s specialty in long-term, high-impact investments in federally designated Opportunity Zones, which use a significant tax incentive to lure investors into low income, overlooked areas. Downtown Mesa is within one of the 11 Census tracts in the city that have that designation.
“Caliber is investing deeply in Mesa and Launch Pad is a significant part of our investment,’’ said Chris Loeffler, CEO and co-founder of Caliber, during the digital announcement, which included U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a supporter of Opportunity Zones.
“People are coming back. Our fund is continuing to grow,’’ Loeffler said. “We need to rebuild America. Part of that is bringing money back into cities and communities.’’
Rodney Riley, Caliber’s vice president for acquisitions, said opportunities always emerge in economic downturns.
“The possibility here is that we will bring hundreds of new businesses. It would make downtown Mesa a critical mass to grow and grow,’’ he said.
Launch Pad, Co+Hoots, and the Studios@asucitycenter are all considered vital cogs in the city’s concept of launching a unique Innovation District that the Brookings Institution think tank recommended for the area. It said such a district could theoretically spawn hundreds of new companies and thousands of new jobs.
“I’m overjoyed,” Giles said of Launch Pad. “This is such a great thing. It’s a wonderful old building full of character.’’
“I think it’s very well suited to downtown Mesa,’’ Giles. “Just down the street is ASU. It’s going to bring a lot of smart, innovative, entrepreneurial people to our downtown.’’
Giles waxed nostalgically about eating at Newberry’s, saying, “One of the things I am excited about is the preservation of the old soda foundation. We will encourage them to have this as authentic as possible.’’
Launch Pad will occupy a building from another era for Mesa, when its downtown was the region’s premier shopping district more than 60 years ago.
“Newberry’s was one of our go-to places,’’ he said. “Newberry’s and J.C. Penny’s. They were the Walmart of the day.’’
At the time, Phoenix and Mesa were the retail centers with little in-between.
“This was a thriving metropolis back in the day,’’ Giles said, and the lunch counters were a prominent characteristic. “I ate at all of them.’’
Those times ended when the Tri-City Mall opened at Dobson Road and Main Street in 1968 as the East Valley’s first enclosed air-conditioned mall, luring away many downtown stores.
New malls after eventually devoured each other as East Valley development moved south and east.
Tri-City closed in the late 1990s, eclipsed by Fiesta Mall and Montgomery Ward.
But they too were abandoned by shoppers as Montgomery Ward was leveled early in the new century to make room for a Target. Fiesta Mall is now vacant, a victim largely of the Chandler Fashion Center and the relentless migration of people farther east.
“Little by little, the lifeblood was siphoned off,’’ Giles said.
Downtown Mesa also faded.
After years of setbacks and big plans gone bust, the city is planning a rebirth centered around the controversial Arizona State University project and a major infusion of at least 1,500 apartment units.
These new projects include The Grove, The Grid, the planned Eco Mesa sustainable apartment complex, and the redevelopment of Site 17.
“I see the entire downtown as having that quality of preserving our history and creating a new future,’’ said Duff, who represents the area.
She mused that Caliber’s plan to retain the soda fountain within a radically renovated building “brings back the nostalgia of our downtown, a beautiful blend of yesterday and tomorrow.’’
Vin Linoff, president of the Mesa Preservation Foundation, said Newberry’s opened in May 1949.
The building was 22,000 square feet with a basement – unusual for Arizona – along with high ceilings to promote air circulation. It also has an old freight elevator in the back leading up to a partial second floor.
A story in The Mesa Tribune said hundreds of visitors flocked to the store when it opened. Old pictures show a striped box awning on the front, another feature Giles remembered and prefers to the blue wavy awning on Launch Pad’s rendering.
Although the soda fountain is a great feature, “we want to see the restoration take place on the outside,’’ Linoff said. “You want to see that character still remain.’’
Chris Schultz, chief community officer of CEO Launch Pad, said his company enjoys operating in historical buildings in downtowns, citing locations in New Orleans, Nashville and Newark, New Jersey.
“We like being in historic redevelopments. This is really about the revitalization of Main Street,’’ Schultz said. “We are focusing on cities that care about the entrepreneurial spirit.’’
Caliber said the “retro-style freight elevator’’ is in working order and that the building has unique vintage details – including 18-foot tall ceilings on the first floor, a 10-foot basement ceiling, wrought iron railings and a polished concrete floor.
Launch Pad’s renovation plan includes the soda fountain, which will morph into the coffee bar, a large lounge and 67 offices of various sizes. It plans to occupy the space by the end of 2021.
Founded in New Orleans in 2009, the company says it has generated more than 9,000 jobs and raised more than $230 million in capital at locations in Stockton, California; Newark, Nashville and Memphis.
“As we look to a post COVID-19 world, we have been talking about the importance of remote work. We have been touting this for years,’’ said Anne Driscoll, CEO.
She said people are anxious to get out of their house and use co-working spaces where, “you can work remotely and not have your kids and your dog in the background,’’ a reference to Zoom digital meetings that have become routine during the pandemic.
Greg Farr, owner of the Antique Plaza, moved his store next door to accommodate Launch Pad.
He said he welcomes a major investment project downtown and praised both Caliber and the city for helping him to continue operating for 25 years.
“I am anxious to see it finished,’’ Farr said. “It’s nice to see them restore old buildings, instead of tearing them down and building new ones.’’
The box-shaped awning would have disappeared many years ago, at least when the city installed a Colonnade that is gradually being ripped down to restore the natural beauty of Main Street’s original buildings.
“I think it will help everyone in downtown Mesa,’’ he said.