While area residents, political activists, and others just looking to be part of the scene lined the streets, local food vendors and business owners in Downtown Mesa appeared to be lining something else: their pockets.
After years of local economic strife and continual debate about the viability of the city’s downtown setting, many on hand for Wednesday’s CNN-sponsored Republican presidential primary debate saw not only a chance to showcase the sparkling Mesa Arts Center, but also an opportunity to display – to a national audience –Mesa’s downtown area as a community on the rise.
“This is great for Mesa’s local businesses and Arizona,” said Brian Banasek, owner of downtown Mesa’s de la Cruz Bistro.
“After SB 1070, a lot of people boycotted Arizona,” Banasek added of Arizona’s controversial illegal immigration legislation – one of the state’s more recent national attention-grabbers.
In the short time leading up to Wednesday’s debate and during the main event itself, local restaurants set up booths near Main and Center streets outside of the arts center. The eateries collaborated with each other on what food they would serve as well as an effort to keep prices below $5 for the thousands in attendance at the City of Mesa-sponsored watch party, according to Kirk Hoffman, owner and general manager of Kirk’s Sports Grill.
Each vendor estimated they served more than 200 people between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Cindy Fitch, owner of Downtown Rendezvous, said she hand-made about 480 hamburger patties in preparation for the event.
Banasek and other shop owners in downtown Mesa hope that the national coverage will bring more people into the city to vacation and spend their money.
“It’s cool America gets to see (Mesa),” agreed 18-year-old Red Mountain High School students Hannah Kirk and Carlie Mack. “The city needs more attention.”
Heidi Wagner of Tempe was content the debate was not held in downtown Phoenix. As one of the Arizona’s largest cities, Mesa often gets overlooked for events like this, she said.
Perhaps not any more.
In addition to local restaurants catching debate fever, other local businesses, like Main Street’s Le Studio Salon De Beaute, contributed in putting Mesa’s service industry on the map.
Laurent Teichman said he’s owned Le Studio in downtown Mesa for more than 20 years. He said he was surprised when he got a call for an early-Wednesday appointment for an out-of-towner named “Ann.” That would be Ann Romney, wife of republican front-runner Mitt Romney, who would be on stage in the arts center later that evening alongside fellow candidates Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.
Teichman said he didn’t hesitate to assign one of his most trusted stylists – Shalise Kellis – to Romney.
Teichman, who said he owns multiple properties throughout Mesa, including others along Main Street, was impressed that the organizers of the event – CNN and the Arizona Republican Party – attempted to use as many downtown Mesa vendors as it could.
“It was all of our local restaurants on main street … one of my other tenants did all the lighting, the big-screen TV,” he said. “It was really a partnership, the local businesses, the city and CNN. It was a really, really great thing for our city. ... So much is happening here, the light rail (extension), everything.
“And Ann Romney couldn’t have been nicer,” he added.
Aside from the city’s quest for possible publicity, the Mesa Arts Center was in the running because of its state-of-the-art technology, Mesa mayor Scott Smith said in November, shortly after Mesa was picked. The $98 million center opened in 2005.
The venue was in competition with the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix and Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University, which hosted a 2004 presidential debate between incumbent Republican George W. Bush and democratic challenger John Kerry.
CNN producers praised the arts center and said it was one of the best venues they’ve hosted a presidential debate, Mayor Scott Smith said. The morning after the event, Smith said he was proud of how smoothly the debate went. Smith said producers even pulled city staffers aside to thank them for being so helpful during their visit, adding they rarely have such glowing comments about their hosts.
Mesa estimated about 1,500 spectators attended the debate viewing party. Police didn’t make a single arrest and said the crowd was generally respectful despite having protesters.
Newt Gingrich volunteer Billie Fagan summed up the night as a “great spotlight for local businesses, and great weather.”
Brett Fera and Garin Groff contributed to this report.
• Angela, a senior studying journalism at Arizona State University, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact her at (480) 898-6514 or firstname.lastname@example.org