During David Short’s interview to become the chief of the Downtown Mesa Association, he was given a blunt description of what he’d face if he took the job.
The guy who held the post before was basically forced out. The merchants are sometimes at odds with the property owners. A Metro light-rail extension will transform Main Street into a construction zone.
After taking it all in, Short quit his job of 12 years in Colorado and moved to Mesa. He liked what he heard.
“Everybody talks about the challenges, but everybody was so passionate about downtown,” he said.
Short took the post of DMA executive director Nov. 1, overseeing the nonprofit organization that promotes the square mile defining the city’s original boundaries.
He’s also charged with reviving the DMA after city leaders and merchants became increasingly critical of its performance. Some business owners found the DMA so irrelevant that they sponsored their own events — at their own cost — just to get people downtown.
Staging and promoting events is a top priority for Short, who was hired because of his track record with events while heading the Downtown Business Association in Fort Collins, Colo.
An obstacle to getting people downtown is that few businesses are open much past 5 p.m. Short sees a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma, as people won’t come if businesses aren’t open, but businesses have no reason to stay open without potential customers. It will take a mix of marketing, businesses willing to be patient and take risks, and plenty of events to turn things around, he said. The events could range from big annual festivals to a few street performers.
“My hope is there will always be something special in downtown that you can expect, regardless of when you come down,” Short said.
Short has been meeting with downtown’s stakeholders to repair relationships and find out what they want from the organization. He’s found some encouragement with the energy some of the newer businesses have invested in their shops and trying to make the place more desirable.
“What I’ve heard from people is downtown Mesa has really been a secret,” Short said. “What I want to do is help Mesa not be a secret anymore.”
Short is working on several things at once to promote downtown. The DMA is developing a brand for downtown and a marketing campaign. The organization has a budget of about $800,000, similar to what Short had in Fort Collins.
Short’s Colorado organization nearly doubled the number of events it sponsored within just a few years, said Jim Clark, executive director of the Fort Collins Convention & Visitors Bureau. The Fort Collins association received no city money and funded itself on the profits of events, Clark said. The DMA is largely funded by the city, though land owners also pay dues.
The Fort Collins association was always looking for additional events under Short’s leadership, Clark said.
“He’s a little quiet. He’s hard working as hell. There’s not a job he won’t do – throw chairs in a truck or haul a Porta Potty,” Clark said. “He’s been good at raising money, he’s led downtown very successfully.”
Short, 40, is married and has three children. He replaces Tom Verploegen, the only DMA chief since the organization was formed 25 years ago. He left for a job in Oklahoma City in April, and his assistant director resigned at the same time. In the last year, several DMA board members left their posts out of frustration with what they saw as a lack of progress.
The city is revamping its regulations to invite more events, Mayor Scott Smith said. The DMA is also changing decades-old rules that held downtown back, he said.
“There’s no doubt that the DMA had a way of doing things that created complications,” Smith said.
Since Short’s arrival, the merchants who sponsor the monthly Motorcycles on Main announced they’re ending their support of the event at year’s end. It drew 3,000 people and became one of downtown’s more popular events since starting in February. The organizers wanted Mesa or the DMA to take over the event, but both declined.
Short said he’s exploring what can be done to keep the event.
Boosting downtown will take time, Short said, because the events business is so challenging. Yet he’s encouraged at his prospects after speaking with people who have stumbled into downtown after not being here for many years. They often are surprised at some shop or restaurant, he said, and say they plan to return now that they know what’s there.
“There is this feeling of revitalization and that things are happening here,” Short said. “We’ve just got to get the word out.”