Can one the nation’s most conservative cities transform itself into an artistic mecca?
City leaders in Mesa are betting on it.
The Mesa City Council unanimously voted (7-0) to move forward on a $14 million affordable housing development for struggling artists.
The decision gives the city manager power to keep working with the Minnesota nonprofit group Artspace on a 77,000-square-foot project near downtown.
“We are thrilled to be moving forward with the momentum behind us” Artspace spokeswoman Rachel Robinson said.
If all goes well, construction crews could break ground by this time next year. When completed, there will be 50 apartments designed for artists to live and work.
But make no mistake, this is not just about art. Mesa is trying to turn art into economics.
“It’s proven all over the country that artists begin to change communities and they begin to impact the community economically,” said Augie Gastelum, who works for the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation in Mesa. “People don’t really think of arts as an economic driver, but it really is.”
For the past three years Gastelum says his group worked with the city and Artspace to get the deal done.
Should the city finalize the deal, taxpayers will be on the hook for some of the costs.
First, Mesa will give away the $230,000 property to Artspace, which has developed similar projects across the country.
The city will also subsidize 50 percent of the utility costs for the first three years.
Mesa Mayor John Giles believes the money is worth it.
“There is a city contribution; it’s this real estate, but this is real estate that’s being underutilized right now,” he said. “there no great plans for it in the future.”
Artspace officials say the project will remain affordable for artists as long as its building is around.
However they expect property values around the complex will increase, raising the question whether it could raise rents in the area and drive less affluent people out.
“This is affordable housing; these are people who have qualified financially; this will not gentrify the neighborhood,” Giles said.
For decades Mesa was known for its downtown antique shops. And recently it was voted the most conservative big city in America. These are two factors that don’t exactly paint a picture of an thriving arts community.
But Mesa has started to change its reputation. The Light Rail is expanding deeper into the city and last week, Arizona State University announced it was expanding operation in Mesa.
In addition, new shops and restaurants have popped up downtown along more street art murals. These are all signs, according to city leaders, that Mesa is changing.