Name this Valley downtown with these three clues:
• On the main drag, the owners of one shop promote something called a zombie walk and are occasionally accused of being satanic.
• Across the street, a movie house will open that celebrates alternative and low-budget flicks.
• And excitement is building for a planned movie prop museum called Monsterland.
Whatever you guessed by now, you’re probably wrong.
This downtown is in Mesa. As in Mesa, the home of Arizona’s first Mormon Temple and a bastion of conservative lifestyles.
But a new generation of merchants is taking over empty storefronts on Main Street with edgier merchandise, offbeat events and a determination to transform a place that lost its luster decades ago.
It’s been jarring for some downtown shoppers.
Amanda Tucker has been confronted by visitors who stumble into Evermore Nevermore and declare her satanic for selling alternative collectibles and clothing. Tucker responds her business is a wholesome family enterprise that just wants people to lighten up.
“Main Street needs to be known as a celebration of these kinds of little shops, kind of like Mill Avenue was 8 or 10 years ago, and all of a sudden it got all corporate and they killed it,” Tucker said. “We have the potential to get all those people who went to Mill 10 years ago and that’s what we want to be, the new Mill Avenue.”
Downtown Mesa for years has been dominated by antique stores, churches and sandwich shops that closed when office workers went home at 5 p.m. And since 2002, downtown was known as the former home of the Nile Theater, which closed after a history of drug arrests, a shooting that left one dead and a band that ran into trouble for simulating a sex act onstage.
The establishment hated the Nile, but the venue has returned under new management and is seen as a sign of progress by some.
The all-ages venue has about two dozen shows a month, manager Michelle Donovan said. One performance this week attracted hundreds of young girls and even Radio Disney, something unimaginable in the Nile’s first incarnation. Donovan said it’s been a tough go at times because of the venue’s past reputation. And many new businesses battle the perception downtown doesn’t have anything worth seeing, she said. New merchants are trying to change that by putting on events and attracting people who might otherwise go to Tempe’s Mill Avenue.
“I think they’re aiming for a more responsible version of Mill Avenue,” Donovan said. “I do think there’s a bit more forward-thinking going on. It’s not as conservative as it once was.”
Store owners became fed up in recent years with the lack of nightlife and events. While they pay dues to the Downtown Mesa Association to sponsor events, frustrated merchants bypassed the organization and started a monthly motorcycle event and other gatherings.
New faces at the DMA and in City Hall have responded by working on more events and plans for better marketing.
DMA director David Short welcomes the hipper businesses and said the goal is to create a downtown with its own character without replicating a neighboring downtown.
“We’re really starting to fill in those business categories that bring activity and that people like to look for in a downtown area,” Short said.
Short and many others believe downtown’s biggest gap is the lack of a microbrewery or pubs that will encourage nightlife. State liquor laws make it nearly impossible for them to locate downtown because of the distance requirements from numerous churches and schools. The city is in the early stages of creating an entertainment district that would let Mesa bypass the rules and welcome more places that serve liquor.
A handful of local and out-of-state microbreweries are studying the market and looking at locations, Short said. The owners are sometimes stunned that nation’s 38th largest city doesn’t have a microbrewery, he said.
“I’m confident that whoever takes the chance is going to be highly rewarded,” Short said. “Every time I do an article like this and it mentions brewpubs, I get calls and emails from people who say, ‘I can’t wait.’ ”
The DMA is working to grow events that will encourage businesses to stay open later — and to locate in Mesa.
Downtown’s new businesses were a big draw for Andrea Beesley-Brown as she scouted locations for her film house called The Royale. She’s moving to Main Street from the MADCAP Theaters in Tempe after also being in Chandler and Phoenix. Recent new businesses like Evermore Nevermore and Gotham City Comics & Coffee convinced her Mesa has businesses to complement The Royale.
“I just know once my patrons come down here, they’re going to love it,” said Beesley-Brown, better known as the Midnite Movie Mamacita.
The Royale will show flicks to patrons lounging in couches, while a retail area will sell unusual items and retro beverages. She plans to open in the fall.
Another likely new operation is HeatSync Labs, a nonprofit for engineers and artists to experiment while welcoming the public to watch or pitch in. HeatSync outgrew its space at Gangplank in downtown Chandler and was coveted by several Valley cities. Mesa was chosen because of the kinds of people operating and shopping in some nontraditional businesses, said Jeremy Leung, a top officer at HeatSync. Evermore Nevermore is supplied by more than 150 local artists, which Leung said is perfect tie to HeatSync’s mission of getting more people to create their own things.
“One of our biggest benefits is actually being able to tie together all these different groups with the events that we do,” Leung said.
HeatSync will be active in the evening, when its members leave their day jobs and start tinkering in the lab. It’s sometimes open past midnight. The operation will include a retail space and host events to encourage people to watch things being made or maybe even to pick up a soldering torch and pitch in, Leung said. HeatSync’s board was set to approve the Mesa move late Thursday.
The changes haven’t been easy for all in downtown. Some store owners fought events that close Main Street or refuse to extend their hours. That frustrates merchants who open late and get complaints from customers that too many stores close early.
Tucker said her Evermore Nevermore got off to a slow start two years ago because the store was one of the first to open late. The shop became crowded during events only after time, she said, adding it requires patience to build a customer base. She admits being apprehensive with the first zombie walk, expecting no more than 30 revelers dressed in full zombie garb.
“By the time the event came around, it was shoulder-to-shoulder zombies out there. It was awesome,” Tucker said. “We were afraid we were going to get a lot of backlash but we’re at the point where we don’t care. There’s nothing wrong with it. We’re helping Main Street. Main Street needs a serious kick in the (rear). This is what we’re trying to do here.”
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