Former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith

Former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith looked at the downtown site as growing organically.

You couldn’t blame the city, really.

Perpetually derided as the biggest American burg no one had ever heard of, Mesa was hungry in the late 1990s for something – anything – that would snazz up its image.

So, when a Canadian developer said he wanted to build an upscale, 12-story water-park resort on the southwest corner of Mesa and University drives, the city bit.

Problem was, the land – situated within Mesa’s original 1878 square-mile boundary – wasn’t vacant. It’s true that time had not been kind to the neighborhood, with houses dating from the early 20th century, but several dozen families still called it home.

County property records show numerous purchases by Mesa of small tracts within the approximately 25 acres beginning in about 1996. Eventually, Mesa spent $7.1 million to assemble the property. The homes, many considered historic, were leveled to make way for the resort.

And then the whole thing went poof. The developer never secured financing, the Mesa Verde resort proposal died, and Mesa was left with a question that would vex it for more than two decades:

What to do with Site 17?

An answer seems to be at hand now with the emergence of Miravista/SIHI Holdings LLC as the city-approved developer for the land. The vision, endorsed by the City Council on April 5, is a mixed-use project with a heavy emphasis on health care and research, residential and other business components.

Such a project, if it actually comes to pass, might bear testimony to the wisdom of not jumping at the first proposal that comes along for such a prime chunk of land.

There had, indeed, been proposals.

In early 2007, the City Council told staff to seek a master developer for the property. The company that emerged from that search, The Athena Group, presented its proposal to the council in January 2008. 

The drawings drew criticism from Scott Somers, who was serving on the council at the time and said the plans fell far short of his expectations for a high-quality project on the site. 

When Athena presented its proposal, Mesa Community College also was considering using part of the land for a downtown campus.

Eventually MCC dropped that idea. And as the Great Recession tightened its stranglehold on the construction industry, the Athena project died as well.

Then, when the Chicago Cubs were threatening to leave Mesa unless the city provided the team with new spring-training digs, some thought Site 17 might be a good fit. That idea, though, never got serious consideration from the city or the Cubs.

Scott Smith, who served as Mesa’s mayor 2008-14, believed Site 17 eventually would find its own solution.

In a 2013 interview, Smith said the city – having already waited that long – was willing to wait a while longer.

“We’re going to let things happen organically,” Smith said. 

He figured the arrival of light rail in downtown Mesa in 2015 would hasten the process, and suggested the acreage might become home to one or more of the colleges that had committed to building campuses in Mesa around that time.

That didn’t happen, either. 

Most of those colleges are gone and the largest that remains, Benedictine University, has been content to use the downtown facilities originally supplied by the city.

The current mayor, John Giles, adopted Smith’s approach to developing Site 17, referring to it in 2018 as a “long-term play” whose final outcome should be worth the wait. With the agreement approved on April 5, Giles and the rest of the council seem to believe that moment is at hand.

Mesa, by the way, appears to have learned from its dalliance with the Canadian developer who came calling a quarter-century ago with big promises and empty pockets.

When a couple of young entrepreneurs asked the city in 2007 to tear up Riverview Golf Course for a $250 million water-themed sports park they called Waveyard, Mesa demanded that they put their money on the table first.

Despite overwhelming voter approval in a 2007 special election, Waveyard’s promoters never came up with the dough. 

The city’s caution – born of the Mesa Verde resort debacle – meant that Riverview would be available for the Cubs. The hugely popular Sloan Park, packed to the gills with fans in non-COVID times, stands as a result.

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