If Mesa Residents Want More Cops, They'll Have to Green-Light an ASU Campus, Too

The only way Mesa residents will see their police department receive a sorely needed infusion of cash is to approve a sales tax in November that will also fund an Arizona State University campus in downtown Mesa.

Mesa leaders and ASU president Michael Crow hope that by putting both the public-safety question and the ASU giveaway on the same ballot question, the ASU deal will have a better chance of being passed.

Conversely, the plan means there's a chance ASU will drag the public-safety package to defeat. 

"Just public safety alone, it would pass with flying colors." — Mesa Police Association president Nate Gafvert on the ballot initiative to raise the sales tax by four-tenths of a percent

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The idea for a downtown-Mesa ASU campus doesn't have universal support yet. Some downtown business and property owners question whether Mesa will get its money's worth out of the ASU project in the long run. A meeting between these stakeholders, Mayor John Giles, and other city officials has been scheduled for today at the office of the Downtown Mesa Association, says a Mesa property owner who plans to attend and didn't want to be identified for this article.

"We have quite a few questions," the property owner says.

Giles announced the plan for a downtown-Mesa ASU campus in February, and city leaders and the Arizona Board of Regents approved it in May. A month later, the Mesa City Council voted unanimously to put funding for the ASU project and public safety on the city's ballot for the November 8 election.

Mesa voters will now decide whether to hike the city sales tax by four-tenths of one percent, from 1.75 percent to 2.15 percent. The increase will raise an additional $38.4 million annually.

According to city officials, the bulk of the new money, $23.2 million, will go to public-safety improvements. While the city's fire department will receive funds for 27 new employees, including 14 firefighters, most of the public-safety money will go to the police department, which Giles — at a news conference earlier this month — said was "stressed" owing to a severe shortage of officers. If voters approve the sales tax, the police department will receive funds to hire 58 officers over the next eight years, plus another nine civilian employees.

Even then, the city wouldn't have enough officers, says Nate Gafvert, president of the Mesa Police Association.

"We desperately need new officers," Gafvert says.

Staffing at the police department of Arizona's third-largest city has dropped from about 860 employees to 760 since the 2008 recession. That puts the department at about 1.5 officers per thousand residents. Gafvert says the ratio should be 2 to 2.5 officers per thousand.

Gafvert says that even if the increase passes, by 2024 the department will be shorthanded to a degree that's "unacceptable." The alternative — that the sales-tax increase fails — is almost unthinkable, he says.

"We weren't overly thrilled that it's on the same ballot," says Gafvert. "I don't think it helps it. Just public safety alone, it would pass with flying colors. The ASU aspect of it, I think, draws a lot of negativity to it."

The ASU deal raises numerous questions even as it touts the downtown campus as the solution to a decades-long quest to make downtown Mesa blossom. The downtown area, which runs along or near Main Street from Country Club Drive to roughly Mesa Drive, has been seen for ages as an underachiever. Better stores, restaurants, and other amenities have arrived, but slowly. And many business owners were as much hampered as they were helped by the construction of the light-rail line down Main Street. Over the years, the downtown areas in neighboring Gilbert and Chandler — both largely bedroom communities like Mesa — have flourished while Mesa's has limped along, its energy sapped by the lack of housing and population density.

Just last year, Mesa paid a local company tens of thousands of dollars to come up with a development plan that would give downtown a boost. A design company proposed remaking the block containing city hall into a public square dominated by an enormous piece of modern art. A few months later, city officials decided to use that area for the proposed downtown ASU campus.

If voters approve the tax, $15.2 million of the money raised each year will be put toward higher education. Mesa Benedictine and Wilkes universities will get some of the cash. But most of it will be used to construct a $102 million-plus ASU project that includes four buildings totaling about 200,000 square feet. Three of the buildings and an underground parking structure would be placed on the same block as City Hall, which is bounded by Main Street, First Street, Center Street, and Centennial Way. The fourth building would be placed near the Mesa Arts Center just south of Main Street.

Early-childhood education, the Gaming and Sensory Technology Institute, and a performing- and media-arts division would be among the programs offered at the new downtown campus, ASU assistant vice president Angela Creedon told the city council in June. The buildings would provide classrooms and workspace for up to 2,000 students in about five years, plus faculty and support staff.

"Downtown Mesa needs a transformation, and this is our opportunity," City Manager Chris Brady says.

The property owner who spoke with New Times agrees with the first half of Brady's sentence. Skepticism arises via questions about whether there will be enough parking for students and visitors to downtown Mesa, where the students will live, and how much the city will wind up paying. 

ASU has agreed only to pay $100,000 per year to lease the buildings. That comes out to $9.9 million over the 99-year lease — a fraction of the construction costs, which are to be covered by loans.

The project is being compared to the downtown-Phoenix ASU campus, which voters approved with a $223 million bond election in 2006. In a 2014 op-ed, Chris Callahan, dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, wrote that the Phoenix campus exceeded expectations of city leaders and has brought millions in annual tax revenue and a new vitality to downtown Phoenix.

But that project had a key difference: It included a residence hall for 1,200 students who had to live in the downtown area near Van Buren Street and Central Avenue. (The Phoenix project also made room for an additional 1,200 students who attend classes downtown, plus another 1,300 faculty members and staff.)

Former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon says many key factors went into the project, but that "housing was important to secure downtown as a viable place."

"That helped create the momentum," he goes on. Suddenly, an area that mostly shut down after 5 p.m. was thrumming with pedestrians. The student residents, needing all manner of goods and services in their new neighborhood, helped spur business development.

At least at first, the students who attend the new ASU facilities in Mesa will leave the area when they're done for the day. Mesa has only 2,580 residents per square mile in its downtown area — by far the lowest number compared to any major metro Phoenix municipality. The city of Phoenix has 4,710 residents per square mile in its downtown, for example, while the college town of Tempe — home to ASU's main campus — has 7,510.

Brady expects the Mesa-ASU project to kick-start interest by private developers who'll want to build apartment complexes or other housing in the area.

One such housing plan is already in the works: The historic Alhambra Hotel, built in the late 19th century and now home to low-income residents and sex offenders, will be renovated to provide housing for students of Benedictine University, a Catholic college with two buildings along Main Street.

Brady says the ASU project has support from police and fire officials who feel it will help, not hurt, the passage of the tax.

Scroll down to see more architectural renderings and maps of the planned ASU campus in downtown Mesa:

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.