The land on the northeast corner of McCulloch Boulevard and Querio Drive has remained vacant since being purchased by Lake Havasu City in the wake of taking second place in America’s Best Communities competition. But the Partnership for Economic Development and Lake Havasu City remain optimistic that big things are on the way.
After a two-year process, the citizen initiative known as Vision 2020 selected the downtown catalyst project as its top priority, followed by the city purchasing property on Main Street. Half of the $2 million dollar prize from the competition was given to the PED specifically for the project and so far that money has remained in a bank account, untouched. That’s not to say that nothing has been done to move the downtown catalyst project forward.
PED President James Gray said his organization has worked with Circle West Architects to develop conceptual plans for the proposed development, and has paid for all expenses incurred so far out of the PED budget. Gray said the prize money is being saved for the final stretch.
“We have really guarded those funds,” he said. “We just had a sense when the dollars were put down that people wanted to see that money go into the construction, or whatever the ultimate realization of that project was. So we have created a lot of conceptual designs within our budget, but more importantly we are taking it to the market because the market is going to dictate where we are at.”
The downtown catalyst project was proposed as part of the economic development and job creation pillar during the Vision 2020 process as a way to help combat demographic starvation.
“We wanted to create a gathering space for, not just the special events but an every night gathering spot for people to come down to, meet up with friends and have coffee or an adult beverage or whatever it is,” said Mark Nexsen, who served as mayor during the Vision 2020 process and as co-champion of pillar one.
The idea is that such a space would help attract a younger crowd by giving them something to do on any given night. Hopefully, that would result in younger generations feeling more inclined to stay in, or move to, Lake Havasu City.
“The concept is not new. It is literally driving all downtowns, driving all rural communities,” said Gray, who also served on the pillar one committee. “It is a pivotal piece that any competitive city needs to have. It is so culturally significant, especially for younger generations, to have these third spaces – these meeting places.”
The end result would be a private-public partnership with businesses setting up shop on part of the property, while the city creates a public gathering space with the rest.
Dreaming big and adjusting from there
Gray said the PED took those initial plans and turned it into a grand vision for the future of the downtown.
The problem was it ended up being just a little bit too grand.
“The first iteration was incredibly aggressive and it was probably $12 to $15 million,” Gray said. “It had high density, it was incredible, and it obviously would have been great, but the appetite for the private investment wasn’t there. Even the public side was saying ‘That is a lot of money.’”
So the PED went back to the drawing board.
“You spend as little dollars as you can, but with as much thought, process, and sourcing of information to get at a design that functions as that catalyst,” Gray said. “People can spend a lot of money, but that is not necessarily what makes a design work.”
The plan has since been revised to reduce the private footprint of the project, thus reducing the investment needed for construction. Gray said the new design is about 60% of the original concept, while the price tag has dropped down around $9 million.
“I think we have the project the right size now,” Gray said. “We say that for a couple of reasons. We have taken it out at a bigger and more expensive scale and people didn’t want to invest in it. Now people are looking at it and saying, ‘I think this is the right track.’ So we are getting closer.”
Where we are at
Gray said 2020 will be a big year for the downtown catalyst project one way or the other.
He believes that the PED has found the right balance between private and public for the project, but ultimately that will be up to businesses and investors to decide.
“At the end of the day, the market is going to speak for the market,” Gray said. “You can’t make people invest millions of dollars.”
Gray said the project has commitments from several potential investors, but still needs more before moving ahead with finalizing design plans, much less starting construction. Although the downtown catalyst is meant to be a private-public partnership, Gray said the first priority is to obtain commitments from the private sector before bringing it back to the City Council for public hearings.
“When the catalyst project goes it has to be the right project for everyone,” Gray said. “So it is not quite as simple, but it is as needed now as it has ever been. It is just about getting those people on the right page. There is not a drop in commitment. It is trying to create the right project for the right investors and then the right operators. I think the investors have always been there – it is finding the operators.”
Although getting everybody on the same page has taken time, Mayor Cal Sheehy said it is a necessary step.
“In order for it to be a catalyst project it needs to be able to be a showcase for our downtown area for continued private investment in that area,” he said. “Until we have that right mix we are not going to move forward with that, because that right mix is what is so pivotal.”
What the future holds
Although optimistic that 2020 will bring in enough additional private investment to move forward, Gray said if little progress is made within the next year or so the PED may need to go back to the drawing board once again. This time, he said that will likely involve going back to the community to report on what has been learned about the market through the first two attempts and to get feedback on how the community wants to proceed.
But for now, Gray said the PED is solely focused on turning the current concept into reality.
“We continue to meet with restaurants and potential tenants and have lease prices and tenant improvement dollars for potential partners,” Gray said. “Even though the total price tag of the project has dramatically lowered, it remains an expensive project that will require at least a $5+ million dollar investment to push forward the public portion of this conceptual partnership. We are constantly looking for ways to lower both the private and public investments, while keeping the best possible catalyst project feasible.”
Although the downtown catalyst project is still in the planning stages, the PED went ahead with a small-scale version of a gathering space known as Yard City. The new pocket park was developed less than a block from the eventual site of the downtown catalyst project, and has served as the home of First Fridays starting last fall.
It was meant to serve as a smaller version of the catalyst project to help gauge public reaction, as well as get people used to coming downtown again.
“We had a couple of goals with it,” Gray said. “Culturally, through the First Friday team, we wanted to create a space that was unlike Lake Havasu – that had a different feel. I think that we have been able to achieve that, I think people like it at that level, and I think it has definitely showed us that people really enjoy downtown. People are surprised that downtown is cooler than they thought if they hadn’t been down there in a while. There might be a little bit more demand for a nighttime economy than people thought. People of all ages, but especially young people, want stuff to do.”
Gray said the biggest surprise for him was how little he has had to do to promote Yard City because of how quickly the community seems to have embraced it.
The PED leased the property for two years and will continue to hold First Friday’s in that location for at least that long. The City Council also recently approved a conditional use permit for Yard City allowing for a few small improvements for additional events such as speakers for a lecture series.
“We realized that Lake Havasu could use a micro-event center, a lot like Prescott, immediately,” Gray said.