Downtown Mesa

Shown here on May 3, 2012, a parking lot in downtown Mesa. A proposal to build a residential development there for senior citizens has been criticized as not in keeping with the vision for turning Mesa's downtown into a more urban center with several residential colleges. [Tim Hacker/ Tribune]

[Tim Hacker/Tribune]

Imagine a downtown with multi-story buildings and sidewalks bustling with young people, professionals, and shoppers. Frequently, a light rail train travels through, stopping to unload passengers from all over the Valley who come to this urban center for work, entertainment and a vibrant nightlife.

Downtown Phoenix? Mill Avenue in Tempe?

No, we’re talking about downtown Mesa — the future home of at least two (and more to come) residential colleges.

This week, the city of Mesa plans to announce negotiations with a third college interested in opening a campus downtown. Already, the Catholic, Illinois-based Benedictine University and liberal arts, Missouri-based Westminster College have committed to opening campuses in downtown Mesa in the fall of 2013.

For a downtown corridor that some may see as nothing more than the Mormon Temple at one end, blight and closed businesses at the other end, and not too much in the middle — the prospect of residential colleges locating there is huge and welcome news.

If Mesa, a city of half a million people, is to be a place where businesses want to locate and people want to work, play and continue to raise families, then it must have an urban downtown center that exudes energy and prosperity. In a word: life.

That life and energy is already starting to return to downtown Mesa as represented by the gorgeous Mesa Arts Center and the Second Friday art walk and concert events that draw huge crowds each month. What better way to supercharge that effort than by infusing it with institutions of higher learning and thousands of college students?

In a recent Tribune story, Mayor Scott Smith said Mesa has declined offers from start-ups, instead looking for established higher education institutions that are nonprofit and residential.

“We were looking for something more than a storefront presence,” Smith said, “and that was important to us because we want the colleges that come here to play an integral role in our community.”

He’s absolutely right. You don’t need to look any further than Mesa’s neighbor to the west — Tempe — to see that. Tempe and Mill Avenue would not be what they are without Arizona State University and the students and employees it brings to the city’s downtown. In fact, ASU President Michael Crow is even advising Mesa on how to market itself as it develops a downtown with an education focus.

In 2011, Mesa mailed invitations to 1,000 colleges to seek proposals for branch campuses as part of its push for economic development. The city, as the Tribune recently reported, wants to boost the number of residents with college degrees while matching those degrees with skills that high-tech employers want.

“The more opportunities you can present to kids at an early age, the more they start talking about taking advantage of these opportunities,” Smith said.

We agree and whole-heartedly support the vision that the mayor and Mesa City Council have for downtown. And we hope that this year’s elections won’t toss a monkey-wrench into the plan.

Smith and two council members are up for election this fall. It’s crucial that Mesa residents vote for candidates committed to the urban development of the downtown corridor — and not the status quo as a bedroom community.

The very livelihoods of our residents and businesses will depend on it.

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