(Source: AZCentral): Lily Altavena – At first, they barely talked to each other as they made their morning laps around the mall’s hallways.
But at some point — many could not recall exactly when — their mornings intertwined.
For decades, about a dozen people regularly walked through Fiesta Mall. To exercise. To socialize. Eventually, to see the friends they’d made orbiting those hallways.
On Jan. 25, the walkers met for one last time at the Mesa mall’s empty food court.
On Jan. 27, management will begin to keep just one door open, mostly to keep the building accessible to management. All but four tenants have moved out, with two planning to move out or close soon.
Fiesta Mall is almost empty
The once-thriving epicenter of East Valley retail has dwindled in occupants and customers for more than a decade. Sears will close Jan. 28, a spokesman with the company confirmed.
Another anchor,Dillard’s Clearance Center, will remain open and is still owned by Dillard’s Store Services Inc., county property records show. The shops inside the mall are vacant save for two: Fade Tite Barber Shop, which will stay, and Shotokan Karate of Arizona, which plans to move next month, co-owner Cheryl Coburn said.
The developer set its sights on transforming the space into a health and education campus called “The Campus at 60,” named for its location near U.S. 60. He says tenants will likely begin to move into the space in 2019.
“There’s a blank canvas there; there’s an opportunity to do something really interesting and iconic for this intersection,” Cashen said.
Walking the mall for decades
Jess Renteria, 80, walked by himself when he first began regularly strolling through Fiesta Mall in 1995. Then he started talking to the others, the group that eventually formed into what Bev Rousculpt, another walker, calls the “Fiesta Mall Buddies.”
Renteria remembers when the mall was packed every Christmas. He watched the stores slowly drain away.
“It was so busy at one time; this was the place to be,” Renteria said.
Fiesta Mall opened in October 1979, one of just two malls in the East Valley. It was extremely popular, but demographic changes and other mall openings signaled its eventual death by the mid-2000s.
The shops today are shells, some with fading hints of what they once were: a sign for Claire’s where preteens once got their ears pierced; a still-displayed map to the mall; and vinyl seats lined up at a diner in the food court.
Barb Brown, 90, another walker, at first didn’t know the others’ names, so she assigned nicknames: “White Pants,” “the Strider,” and “Mutt and Jeff,” after the comic strip. Some of the walkers have dropped off over the years. Some have died.
Many have stuck together, uniting every Thursday to tell stories, talk about their families and joke. These days, the walking has largely given way to talking at a lone row of pushed-together tables in the middle of the vacant food court.
After Nancy Pensis weathered a serious illness, the other walkers made sure she got a ride to the mall, so she could do the walking so crucial to her recovery. Another one of the walkers recently had a stroke, so his son began to come along.
“We have stuck together through thick and thin,” Pensis said. “This was a place where we were able to assemble, see each other regularly, get to know people and that place is going away. I’m sad about that.”
What will Fiesta Mall become?
Developers plan to transform Fiesta Mall into a campus focused on health and education. Wochit
The developers own the interior part of the mall except for Dillard’s, Sears, the former Macy’s and Best Buy/Dick’s buildings. For the part of the mall they do own, they envision a mix of medical and educational spaces, Cashen said.
That could mean separate schools and health-care spaces in the former mall. The developer is also exploring a hybrid: possibly bringing in health care-related education tenants such as a nursing school.
Dimension Financial is touring potential tenants through the space, according to Cashen. No one has officially signed on yet “by design.”
“The interest for new tenancy far exceeds what we expected,” he said. “Part of our blueprint for the tenancy is to really be careful and to create a balanced tenancy where there’s synergy between the tenants and they complement one another.”
The interest has been from schools and “national name-brand retailers,” though Cashen did not reveal which ones.
‘It’s maddening to me’
Dennis Kavanaugh, a former Mesa councilman, has been working to revitalize Fiesta Mall and its surrounding area, called the Fiesta District, for more than a decade. He’s looking for action.
“It’s maddening to me,” he said. “I started working on this in December of 2003. This is worse than waiting on a hippo to give birth.”
In the nine months since Dimension purchased the mall, “we really haven’t seen anything,” Kavanaugh said. He believes Mesa set the stage for development in the area, and now its time for the developers to deliver.
The Fiesta District, or the 1.15 square miles surrounding the mall, is a key economic development corridor in Mesa. More than $493 million from various entities has gone into redevelopment of the area, according to the city’s Economic Development Department.
The redevelopment includes:
- $41 million in the Southern Avenue Villas on Southern Avenue and Extension Road.
- $12 million in a Santander Consumer USA office.
- $19.5 million in Mesa Community College developments.
Valley Metro is also considering whether light rail or other transit could go in the area. The study is budgeted for $900,000 and slated to be complete in 2019.
The Fiesta is over
On Twitter, users remembered Fiesta Mall as where they met a spouse, where they held their first jobs and where they ate their “weight in A&W corn dogs at that food court as a child.”