Downtown Mesa will get a major boost this year as merchants and the city launch four signature events that they want to grow into major annual festivals.
The effort is ambitious for a downtown that's lost all its major events in a community struggling in a recession.
The big events are part of a drive to get merchants more involved and promote a downtown that's suffered an image problem for years.
Mayor Scott Smith figures downtown could become a place known for events, much like the once-sleepy Tempe Town Park is now booked all the time. That only happened after merchants and Tempe began staging events, he said.
"Success breeds success, and that's because people got used to going down to Tempe Beach Park," Smith said. "People just go down there to see what's happening."
The merchant group called the Downtown Mesa Association has identified three of the four events: a spring break festival in March, Old West Days in November and an Independence Day celebration in July.
The group is studying the fourth event, likely one centered around the popular sculptures or one that involves classic cars and the cruising that was once popular in Mesa. The history of those themes makes it much easier to fashion an event around them, said Tom Verpoloegen, DMA president.
"We're not reinventing the wheel with either of them," he said. "We just need to figure out which one we want to do and figure out how to make it roll."
Downtown Mesa once hosted huge events, including the Mesa Fine Folk Festival that drew 125,000 people. A Christmas event on Main Street once flooded downtown with people.
"We used to have wonderful, big events down here," said George Notarpole, owner of History by George. "It was like Times Square down here."
The events died after city budget cuts or because some, like the folk festival, struggled to compete with similar events in the Valley.
But merchants and the city say successful events are possible if they have a logical tie to the past and are properly produced and marketed.
The spring break event would include ties to the Chicago Cubs spring training and the popularity of the Cactus League. Many Chicago-related themes could help lure locals and tourists, Verplogoen said, like Blues Brothers music or jazz. The Independence Day event could include the fireworks show that the Mesa Sertoma Club typically sponsors, though it was unable to raise enough money for the show last year.
Merchants figure the down economy could help the spring and Independence Day events, as families may forgo travel while looking for local entertainment.
The Old West Days would continue what Notarpole and another merchant have privately financed for two years. The family of iconic lawman Wyatt Earp once lived on Sirrine in downtown, he said, making the theme a natural fit.
"There is a lot of history in this town," Notarpole said. "It needs to be celebrated."
The DMA is better positioned to organize events because it, for the first time, has a budget and an employee who specializes in marketing and special events. The group has $64,500 for events in the first half of 2010.
Events boost the downtown area even after the festivals end, said Betty Freeman, co-owner of Inside the Bungalow. Customers discover shops or the area as a whole and often come back on nonevent days. Freeman wants big events as often as once a month.
"Hopefully it will bring awareness to the community that there is actually a downtown in Mesa and let them know that it is lively," Freeman said.
Merchants said they've seen much more interest and involvement from fellow downtown business owners in the last few years. Last year, Smith implored those involved with downtown to "grab the bull by the horns" and do more to promote downtown
"I felt like in many ways we had groups standing around, waiting for things to happen," Smith said. "If you're going to have a community event, large or small, somebody has to step in and say 'We can help.'"
The events will take time to grow in size and quality, Verploegen said, adding that problems pop up if the events grow too quickly.
The smaller, more frequent events that merchants have been promoting recently have been growing, which merchants said is a sign that people do want to visit downtown. Many key details about the big events are still being worked out, but business owners said they're already excited something is happening.
"This is a really nice town, and the merchants down here have been working so hard to make this downtown work," Notarpole said.