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.