Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Local Artist Brightens Mesa’s Downtown

Artist Jake Early and his father install the
temporary art. Photo: Ryan Winkle
Local artist Jake Early has spruced-up 3,000 square feet of outdoor space in Mesa’s Downtown with custom designed and hand-printed art. Placed in both surprising and conspicuous locations, these fine-art images, inspired by street art and wheat-pasted posters, reflect Mesa’s heritage in a variety of ways. Sponsored by the DMA and NEDCO, this temporary public art project is made possible through the Valley-wide InFlux project, now in it’s 5th year. Various art is installed throughout the Valley. You can find a variety of these temporary installations in Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler, Tempe, Scottsdale, Phoenix and other valley cities!

Jake made ten individual designs, which can be found around 15 businesses downtown -- can you find them all? Which is your favorite?

For more information:
In Flux -
Downtown Mesa Association - Press Release
Downtown Mesa - If you knew it, you’d do it!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In Mesa, Community Groups Discover Power of Voice

Guest post by Gordon Walek. 

Everyone pays lip service to the notion that community involvement is a critical element in determining how urban areas evolve and change – that residents, and the businesses and institutions representing them, have a say in what gets built when, where and why.
Attendees at a Mesa Workshop. Photo: Gordon Walek

In older cities with histories of neighborhood activism and activists, such as Jane Jacobs in New York and Saul Alinsky and Gale Cincotta in Chicago, local governments have institutionalized systems for engaging local people in planning everything from new houses, businesses, and parks to highways and rail systems.

But what about newer cities, where such planning traditions don’t exist? There’s no blueprint that local governments can apply to ensure thorough and robust community engagement in shaping how they grow. But in Mesa, Ariz., they’re working to create one.

With 440,000 residents, Mesa, just east of Phoenix, is Arizona’s third largest city and receives about $3.5 million annually from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through Community Development Block Grants, HOME funds and the Neighborhood Stabilization Program – mostly for the development of affordable housing and other community-related assets. The money, of course, comes with a few hitches, including that the city prepare five-year plans laying out how the money will be spent. Those plans require public comment.

Planning without community voice
“Historically, that planning has been done without active community voice,” said Tammy Albright, director of Mesa’s Department of Housing & Community Development, which is responsible for creating those five-year consolidated plans. “Everyone, including the city, wanted that to change. But it’s very difficult to get people to engage. We’ve put it (notices of meetings for public comment) in the newspaper and on our website and maybe one person shows up. They don’t know what a consolidated plan is.”

Photo: Gordon Walek
That’s not a knock on the citizenry. Even in older, more established cities there’s rarely a public stampede to discuss arcane urban planning matters. But in Mesa, there’s no history, and no structure, for such comment.

That wasn’t lost on HUD, a couple of national community development intermediaries (Enterprise and LISC), and a handful of Mesa-based organizations engaged in local economic, housing and transportation development. During the last year, they set about working with the City to improve the process.

For the last few years, Enterprise had been kicking the tires in Mesa, identifying local community development organizations such as the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO) and A New Leaf that were involved in new business, affordable housing and social services development, while at the same time assessing the city’s efforts to come up with a new plan to spend the HUD dollars. This was at the same time Valley Metro was extending the light rail system from Phoenix to Mesa and the Phoenix LISC office was promoting community development “along the line.”

Good time for planning
“This seemed to be an ideal time to start working with the community development organizations,” said Enterprise’s Ed Rosenthal. “NEDCO had already begun to assist the community in preparing for light rail and A New Leaf had just finished an affordable housing development (the 80-unit La Mesita Apartments) on Main Street near the light rail.”
Presenter Joel Bookman Photo: Gordon Walek

Rosenthal figured that if groups such as NEDCO and A New Leaf got additional technical assistance and training not only would they strengthen their development skills but they could also, with their community roots, be a catalyst for shaping the city’s five-year consolidated plan. In short, a win-win.

So he enlisted Teresa Brice, executive director of the Phoenix LISC office, which had done work in Mesa a few years before employing the LISC MetroEdge the consulting team of Helen Dunlap, Joel Bookman and Amanda Carney – specialists in community engagement and business development – to work with the neighborhood groups and the city.

“Mesa is kind of a conservative place,” said Rosenthal, who until he retired earlier this year directed Enterprise’s rural program from Santa Fe. “You don’t have a lot of active community development corporations, as in New York and Chicago. And solid groups like NEDCO and A New Leaf didn’t coordinate their efforts or understand the power they have. Part of training was to get them to understand the role they could play…in moving the city in a certain direction.”

Enter Helen Dunlap and company, who over the past year presented a series of workshops – open to community development organizations, arts groups, transit advocates, developers, city employees and anyone else – ranging from the basics of community organizing, to how to conduct a meeting, to the value of telling your story. All within the context of helping the city write its five-year consolidated plan.

New breed of Mesa community developers
NEDCO’s David Crummey, an urban planner and public transit advocate, was in the vanguard of whipping up local enthusiasm for the workshops and influencing the consolidated plan. His youth – he’s 33 – and his can-do attitude are consistent with the tone and demographics of many Mesa-based community organizations. Crummey was aware of the consolidated plan – and the opportunity it represented for NEDCO and other groups to influence it. He was troubled to learn that the original meetings to elicit public comment were scheduled on the same day, within an hour of each other.
Workshop Attendee Photo:Gordon Walek

“There’s no way anyone would get to those meetings,” he said. “We needed to make clear what we wanted and how we could leverage those dollars. How do we move forward with a vision for our community rather than just letting things happen?”

Meanwhile, Ryan Winkle, a Mesa native who studied urban planning and cut his community development teeth running an urban garden a couple years ago, acted as a connecting thread among Mesa’s community based organizations, hosting meetings, encouraging attendance at the NEDCO-sponsored  workshops, helping them see themselves as having a collective power when they acted together.

“People are now asking how they can get more involved,” said Winkle, 35. “They’re coming together. They’re talking about what they learned in the workshops. That’s pretty amazing.”

After hearing from Crummey, Winkle and others, the city scheduled three additional public meetings at times when working people could attend, to shape the consolidated plan.

It takes a village
“We have to put a big thank you out to Enterprise, LISC and NEDCO,” said Tammy Albright. “We wouldn’t have had the level of community engagement without their efforts. This is the most community engagement we’ve had on a consolidated plan.”
Photo: Gordon Walek

Crummey credits the workshops with not only boosting the skills of local community groups, but with allowing them to get to know each other.

“At the first one – What is Comprehensive Community Development – aimed at nonprofits and government employees, you could see a few light bulbs going on,” he said. “How do we come together, instead of just distributing the money? But the conversations at those meetings, and the people who met each other, were the most important part.”

Shay Meinzer, director of real estate and asset manager at A New Leaf, who’s spent the last 16 years working in the nonprofit and for profit housing and community development sectors in Pennsylvania and Ohio, noticed upon arriving in Mesa last May that the neighborhood dynamics – even the definition of neighborhoods – differed considerably with the what she was accustomed to.

“I don’t see neighborhoods fighting for themselves,” she said. “As developers, we can identify opportunities, but if you don’t have the backing of residents, you won’t go anywhere. It’s a very slow process. But whenever you can get people together, you can really start a discussion. Then you have to keep it going.”

As for the consolidated plan? A draft is on the city’s website.

“There’s not as much impact in the plan as I would have liked,” said Rosenthal. “There’s some important language that opens the door to transit-oriented-development planning, but it’ll be meaningless unless the groups apply pressure. They have to keep at it.”

One of the many Mesa workshops. Photo: Gordon Walek
Crummey and others now active in groups like RAILmesa (Retail, Arts, Innovation, Livability), which advocates for increased citizen participation, responsible development of housing, transit options and the creation of quality jobs along Mesa’s light rail corridor, agree. But he sees the planning experience as simply a prelude to an era of larger public engagement in Mesa development.

“The biggest thing that needs to be conveyed is that a group of people with a common purpose can bring about change,” he said. “If the community wants to see things happen, it needs to work together and speak in a concerted voice. This experience has changed the level of interest in downtown Mesa. And it’s reduced the fear that the community is some ugly beast that would bite you.”

Gordon Walek, a Chicago-based writer and photographer, has spent that last 15 years working in various communications capacities for Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Prior to his work with LISC, Gordon spent 20 years as a newspaper and wire service reporter in the Chicago area, where he also worked as an adjunct professor at Columbia College.

More photos of the events are included here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Downtown Mesa: If you knew it, you’d do it.
Impromptu Restaurant Crawl is Successful in Downtown Mesa

Recently, a group of passionate friends formed Project Downtown Mesa and, with the goal of bringing another restaurant to downtown Mesa. Excited by new people interested in downtown, NEDCO decided to host a restaurant crawl to show off a few of the great restaurants open for dinner downtown. Many of the group had no idea that downtown Mesa had such a variety of restaurants open for dinner including 26 restaurants within a half mile of the arts center, 14 of which are full-service.

Beginning at Republica Empanada, we enjoyed a delightful spread of empanadas and their fabulous Arroz con Pollo. Marco Meraz, the manager, introduced the food and told us the history of the restaurant, and about his family’s commitment to Downtown Mesa. From there, we transitioned to Nunthaporn’s Thai Cuisine, where we were overwhelmed by three featured dishes and spring rolls - Pad Thai with Shrimp, Cashew Chicken, and Massaman Curry with Chicken. Nunthaporn shared her family’s story and history in downtown, moving from Country Club and the US60 to downtown in 2009.

As it began to lightly rain, the group made it’s way over to Queen’s Pizzeria where they were delighted with bruschetta and margarita pizza. Emilie and Gannon Nikolich shared their family’s history in downtown and were delighted to show off their recently renovated new location with a full bar & craft beer on tap. Il Vinaio (the Wine Merchant) greeted the group with a full dining set up and individual portions of their goat cheese linguine with grilled chicken. Cameron and Cindy Selogie talked passionately about their decision to open their business on Main Street and their hopes for the continued growth and local support in downtown. Feeling a little fuller, the group then transitioned to Mango’s Cafe, who generously offered to stay open a little later to accommodate the group. We enjoyed street tacos made with carne asada and al pastor, and were offered chips and salsa and horchata to accompany our tasting. Long-time Mango’s employee, David Jimenez, welcomed the group with enthusiasm and warmth providing an atmosphere tailored for our enjoyment. Our final stop was Margarita’s Grille, where we were greeted with a full table set up and individual sample platters of chimichangas, tacos, taquitos, and fried shrimp. Ryan Caldwell, shared the family’s 30 year history in the restaurant business and in the valley, with Margarita’s being the newest addition to the restaurant family.

The final stop also allowed for easy conversations between the DTMesa group and the NEDCO staff. Discussion was passionate and curious, and everyone spoke with an open mind and excitement about the possibilities in downtown. The downtown vision was mentioned, noting that the initiative to bring 1500 new housing units to downtown would not only support the existing businesses but would also provide evidence and support for new businesses to join our downtown family. There was general consensus that the local restaurants in our downtown need help spreading the word and getting attention from new patrons, as it was clear how easily they were overlooked even by interested local residents. Everyone involved walked away feeling the excitement of a collaborative effort to support and improve downtown.

MESA: If you knew it, you’d do it proved true once again - inviting people to experience our downtown challenges the common misperception that there is not much to offer. In reality, downtown Mesa is made up of locally-owned shops and restaurants and filled with passionate and involved business owners, organizations, and neighbors. If you knew it, you’d do it.

If you are interested in participating in a future downtown restaurant event, please contact us at For more information about NEDCO, go to:

Click here for more photos from the crawl.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Main Street Gets Creative, Artists Invade Downtown Businesses

Local Artists get $1000 mini-grants to partner with Local Businesses in Downtown Mesa

Mesa, AZ: This fall, five local artists will partner with Downtown Mesa businesses to engage the community and bring vibrancy and life to Main Street. In a program called Ripple, the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO) will fund artists with mini-grants to do placemaking projects in an effort to support community and economic development.

Ripple is inspired by Irrigate in St. Paul, where a local non-profit discovered the value of creative placemaking during their light rail expansion. Downtown Mesa has experienced some of the same challenges as St. Paul and responded in a similar way – finding ways to celebrate the extension of the light rail line and inviting the community to do the same by participating in ongoing events and taking part in a “Shop on Main St.” initiative to support local businesses. Ripple takes these efforts a step further by giving local artists the opportunity to build relationships with the independently owned businesses along Main Street and to use their art as a tool for community development.

All artists were required to attend a day-long workshop on creative placemaking that took place in August and was taught by Springboard for the Arts’ Artist Community Organizer, Jun-Li Wang. Jun-Li focused the workshop on examples of creative placemaking and necessary collaboration and leadership skills. Artists were then required to develop a proposal and submit it for review. Projects were chosen based on three criteria: 1) Quality of Partnership – Is the project mutually-beneficial to both the artist and business? 2) Impact – Will the project have a meaningful, visible, potentially ongoing impact on the community? 3) Viability – Does the project fit with Downtown Mesa and do the partners have the capacity to see the proposal through to successful completion? Five projects were chosen ranging from activities encouraging participation using social media to live mural painting, interactive window displays, and community art workshops.

Terry Benelli, Executive Director of NEDCO, shared her enthusiasm about Ripple, stating “We are so excited about the partnerships that have already been created between these artists and the local businesses and cannot wait to see what these projects further inspire. Ripple provides an opportunity to not only share local artistic talents but to also expose more people to the unique independent business in our downtown. We are witnessing the unique marriage of arts and economics – let’s support our local economy by supporting our local artists!”

Ripple projects are set to take place at several Downtown businesses including Lo-fi Coffee, Queen’s Pizzeria, Lulubell Toy Bodega, Margarita’s Grille, Linton-Milano’s Music, and more to be announced. Projects will begin within the upcoming weeks and wrap up during the winter holidays. 

For more information, contact Jennifer Disbrow at or 480-258-6932.
About NEDCO: NEDCO is a non-profit Community Development Financial Institution based in Mesa, AZ. Primarily offering micro-loans to low-moderate income census tracts, NEDCO also seeks out opportunities to support the local community through economic development. Find more information at

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Mesa’s Arts & Culture District, needs more arts & culture.

Yes, we have the Mesa Arts Center (MAC), the i.d.e.a. Museum, Mesa Contemporary Arts, and the Second Friday Art Walk, so why does it still feel like something is missing? That question can be answered with two words: Creative Placemaking.

You may be asking yourself, what is this thing, this placemaking? In the words of Springboard for the Arts, “Placemaking is the act of people coming together to change overlooked and undervalued public and shared spaces into welcoming places where community gathers, supports one another, and thrives. Places can be animated and enhanced by elements that encourage human interaction – from temporary activities such as performances and chalked poetry to permanent installations such as landscaping and unique art.”

In July of this year, the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO) hosted a Creative Placemaking workshop. Carefully selected leaders in Arizona’s art scene participated in three days of training to learn how to administer this workshop to others in the future, representing the Arizona Commission on the Arts, Mesa Arts Center, Childsplay AZ, the i.d.e.a. Museum, and the Mesa Art Bizarre. Along with these leaders, over a dozen artists from Mesa and the Valley participated in the eight-hour interactive course, learning how to begin using their art as a tool for community engagement. Jun-Li Wang, from Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul, used activities, visual examples, and animated discussion to teach artists about placemaking, collaboration techniques, leadership, and teamwork. The workshop wrapped up with Jennifer Disbrow, from NEDCO, answering questions and reviewing the requirements to apply for a mini-grant for artists to fund their own placemaking project.

The sense of connection, engagement, empowerment, and overall excitement coming from those who attended was undeniable. Artists were inspired to start working on their projects to make an impact in Downtown and that is what they did.

Jaime Glasser, a local artist whose craft is iphonography, stated "It has given me an opportunity to think of how public art can bring art in different ways to more people and help connect people with their place and encourage interaction too between businesses, people, places and art. I am really excited and empowered to see what I can do to engage more people this way!"

The Mesa Art League was well-represented at the workshop too, and Loralee Stickel, president of the Mesa Art League, shared her excitement about the experience. "I had no idea this workshop would make a difference. How wrong I was. Not only was I able to network with other artists and business owners, but I was presented with opportunities to work with them. They taught skills on how to cooperate with diverse individuals and what real collaboration is. Thanks to NEDCO for sponsoring this workshop."

Kyllan Maney, “I found the Placemaking workshop to be a gathering of artistic minds seeing downtown Mesa in a new light. I have a greater appreciation for the historic quality of the area. I was enlightened by the projects I saw in other cities presented. It helped me see how Mesa can keep it's historical roots and move forward with the progression of the area. I also liked the aspect of the workshop on communication and collaboration.”

The program is called Ripple, inspired by Springboard for the Arts’ Irrigate program in St. Paul. Ripple applications were due on September 1st and will be reviewed by a collaborative group representing NEDCO, MAC, the Downtown Mesa Association, and downtown businesses. Five artists will be funded to do their project in collaboration with a local business.

We expect the results to be a hit - encouraging a blossoming relationship between artists and downtown, and bringing the arts to the Arts & Culture District in an exciting and reimagined way.

NEDCO is a Community Development Financial Institution based in Mesa, offering microloans and technical business assistance. NEDCO also organizes the Mesa Entrepreneurial Artist program which spans eight weeks and teaches artists business basics and provides networking opportunities. Find out more about NEDCO and this program here:

Participants discuss leadership styles.

The winners of the tallest tower building contest, demonstrating exceptional teamwork!

More passionate discussion about leadership!

Councilwoman Terry Benelli, on leave from her position as Executive Director of NEDCO, stopped in to speak with participants.

Jun-Li Wang and her exceptional facilitation skills engage participants in discussion about placemaking and collaboration.