By Scott Shumaker
The City of Mesa and Arizona State University’s $100 million Media and Immersive eXperience Center building in downtown Mesa is nearing the end of its first semester of hosting students in film, media arts and emerging technology after opening in August.
ASU said 700 students currently use the facilities at the MIX Center, and beginning this fall, college students could be seen stepping off light rail or crossing 1st Street between the new building and the Mesa Convention Center parking lot to reach the building.
Nancy Hormann, president of the Downtown Mesa Association, said local property owners are noticing students going to and from the building, but so far there hasn’t been a huge influx of customers to local businesses.
Hormann is expecting more direct impacts as the volume of students using the MIX Center increases in coming semesters – one of the big homes and promises by city officials when they approved spending more than $60 million to get it built.
“We have seen a small increase in a younger clientele base that’s been coming into our facility here at 12 West Brewing,” Chuck Fowler, manager of Main Street’s 12 West Brewing told the Tribune.
“We believe that foot traffic business will continue to increase as the students get more settled into the neighborhood and as all the residential projects begin to fill up with tenants,” he added.
The ASU at Mesa City Center project does not include student housing, but there are currently about 900 residential units under construction downtown and 400 units have been completed in recent years.
“Our later night life has always seen slower growth; however with more food and beverage businesses staying open later and as the students begin to take notice, I’m confident we will become a bustling destination spot for them,” Fowler said.
One of the biggest gains for downtown so far, Hormann said, has been in changing perceptions of the neighborhood.
She said the MIX Center has added to the area’s “cool factor” and that her association has received an increasing number of inquiries from people and businesses interested in moving to downtown.
The city of Mesa spent $64 million on the building’s design and construction, and ASU put another $33 million into the interior and technology.
The university has a 99-year lease with the city for $100,000 per year, and ASU is responsible for all operating costs as well as other conditions.
The full payoff of the MIX Center has yet to be seen, but one thing is clear: the building shows well to visitors, and the millions put into its design and technology have delivered a building with several show-stopping features.
When MIX Director Jake Pinholster was showing the building this month to members of the PHX East Valley Partnership, a coalition of regional leaders who advocate for the East Valley, someone let out an audible “wow” as they entered the MIX Center’s 261-seat Large Screening Theater.
As tour-goers walked through the theater doors, down an aisle and then out into the open theater space, outside noise evaporated and speech became crisp as the walls absorbed sound, thanks to world-class insulation throughout the building, Pinholster said.
The theater’s height takes up two floors, and vertical light bars glowing on the walls emphasize the volume of the 5,000-square-foot theater.
The scale and polish of the theater was unexpected.
The entire building is packed with features that are difficult for the untrained eye to see.
Pinholster pointed out small air vents in the floor of the theater for heating and cooling. HVAC is a critical part of the building, as filmmaking spaces need AC that is effective but silent.
Consequently, the architect’s paid a lot of attention to how air moves through the building, Pinholster said.
The large theater is not fully operational yet because the MIX Center is still waiting for digital projection equipment to arrive, slowed due to supply chain issues, he said.
When the theater is ready to screen films, Pinholster said ASU plans to host movie-showings on the weekends open to the public. Films will include classics, niche documentaries and student work.
But already the MIX Center is hosting public events. Next weekend, on Dec. 2 and 3, the MIX Center will host the Mesa International Film Center in two smaller theaters and classrooms in the building.
The MIX Center is well-suited to events as many elements of the building are customizable. Pinholster paused on the tour to show off a “pocket door” –basically an entire wall – in a classroom that can be opened to create a breezeway through the first floor of the buildings.
Pinholster envisions the building as a community asset, which is consistent with ASU’s philosophy of expanding “access” to education, as well as the partnership between the city and ASU.
Anybody can take a class at the MIX Center, Pinholster said, and he said the facility was designed to not be its own school, but serve as a resource for people in a variety of disciplines and programs.
Community members not affiliated with ASU will be able to reserve the professional-quality production spaces when not in use by students.
The facilities include four soundstages with all the equipment of a professional studio, including make up rooms, lighting, cameras and “elephant doors” for moving large sets from on site workshops to the studio.
Pinholster said Mayor John Giles was scheduled to film his state of the city address last week.
Walking onto one of the sound stages felt like being transported to a Hollywood set, as the black walls, robust insulation and lighting signaled tour goers were entering a special space focused on making movie magic.
Pinholster boasts that the MIX Center has more resources in one building for creating films, virtual worlds and mixed reality arts than any other school.
“This is quite a place. It blows your mind,” EVP Vice President Mike Hutchinson said after the tour.
Before taking the tour, EVP heard an update from Mesa’s Downtown Development Manager Jeff McVay on redevelopment in the historic city center and how the MIX Center fits into the city’s vision to reinvigorate it.
The theory for bringing ASU to Mesa, McVay explained is that attractive entrepreneurial hubs, or Innovation Districts, need an “anchor institution,” usually either a university or a teaching hospital.
McVay said that ASU’s satellite campus in Phoenix helped ignite a revitalization in that city’s downton district, and they are looking for a similar transformation in downtown Mesa.
The ASU presence, which includes a collaboration on a business incubator in the old library next to the City Council Chambers, came together after Mesa voters rejected a plan to tax themselves to put a larger ASU campus downtown in 2016.
Change did not come to downtown overnight when ASU’s scaled down presence launched this fall, but downtown business leaders think the MIX Center has helped awaken a sleeping giant.