Jen Fifield, Arizona Republic Published 6:00 a.m. MT Nov. 21, 2018 | Updated 2:32 p.m. MT Nov. 21, 2018
More than a million lights will illuminate downtown Glendale this weekend as Glendale Glitters begins.
Thousands will converge on the city's streets and sidewalks near 58th and Glendale avenues looking to get in the holiday spirit. There will be music, dancing and fireworks.
But underneath the glow of the festive lights, not everyone will be feeling cordial.
Downtown merchants are in a bit of a war now — with city officials, and with one another.
The conflict is rooted in the challenges that downtown faces — challenges that the celebration will only do so much to mask. Many storefronts are empty, some businesses are struggling and everyone knows that without a big affair, crowds are unlikely to come.
The problem isn't unique to Glendale. Many shopping malls and downtowns across the state are struggling as more people shop online, although some malls are finding a way to adapt.
CHANGE VS. TRADITIONS LIKE GLENDALE GLITTERS
The crux in Glendale is whether to take big risks to spark change.
City Manager Kevin Phelps is proposing bold ideas meant to bring more people and business downtown year-round. But his ideas tug on the city's historical heartstrings.
As Glitters celebrates its 25th season, he proposes ending the festival, which would give the city money to host smaller events downtown throughout the year. He also wants to move Velma Teague Branch Library out of Murphy Park and put destination restaurants in that key spot.
Many merchants, including some who are newer to the area, are on board. They say downtown needs to come to life.
Others, though, believe Phelps' ideas strip downtown Glendale of charm and tradition, which is what they say pulls people in. They also say they don't know what they would do without the money they make during holiday weekends, which they tuck away to help get through the slower summer months.
“If you begin to chip away at the one reason people come to Glendale, they aren't going to come back,” said Lorraine Zomok, a downtown resident, business owner and former head of the city's tourism office.
Although change may need to happen, Zomok said, the business owners, not the city, should be leading the way.
Phelps calls the scene "dysfunctional" and says he's putting his proposals on hold, for now.
CITY STEPS BACK
In a memo to the City Council this month, Phelps said he's not going to force a new strategy on the group of vocal merchants opposed to his plan.
“It is my opinion they would be actively engaged in getting any new strategy to fail,” Phelps said in an interview with The Arizona Republic.
His idea is that the city needs to stop spending $1 million to host Glitters and about a dozen other large events downtown, and instead spend the money hosting 100 to 150 smaller events throughout the year at the amphitheater adjoining City Hall.
This means the city needs to invest $4 million in upgrading the amphitheater, he said, so people and shows will want to come. The venue would need a new floor, seating and permanent sound and lighting, he said.
The city could get this money by selling a building it owns downtown, he said, currently occupied by Bank of America.
His other big idea, to move Velma Teague Library from Murphy Park to the old Bead Museum across the street, is something he said he didn't announce publicly for fear of the backlash it would bring. Instead, he told the council in his memo.
If the library moved, Phelps said, the city could offer it as a redevelopment site for destination-type restaurants that will draw crowds.
Glendale should be a year-round destination, he said.
CONFLICT STEMS FROM CONTROL
Some of the battle downtown stems from control, Phelps said.
Two merchant groups have formed downtown recently that are both working toward the same goals, but are not communicating with one another.
One is led by the Glendale Chamber of Commerce. In spring 2017, the city awarded the Glendale Chamber of Commerce a contract focused on downtown business initiatives. Since, the chamber hired a downtown business manager, Katy Engels, who started a new merchant group.
Separately, this summer, Zomok created the Historic Downtown Glendale Merchants Association.
Zomok said the city recently dropped the marketing for smaller, merchant-led downtown events, and she created the group to fill the gaps.
When the city talks to merchants, it does so through the chamber's group. Many of the merchants involved support Phelps' plan, said Robert Heidt, the chamber's president.
Zomok said she believes merchants should be leading the way on changes downtown, not the city or chamber.
"There is no one better to define downtown than the businesses themselves," she said.
'THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING'
Some downtown business owners say they are just thankful for the city's support.
Melissa Zieman, owner of Meli Lips, which sells handcrafted bath and beauty products in Catlin Court, said year-round events would help change the perception of downtown and introduce more people to what's there.
Next door at Carrie's Salon, owner Carrie Vogelsang said businesses need to constantly adapt to stay viable, and that means being receptive to new ideas. She likes Phelps' idea to offer more, smaller events.
But Cheryl Kappes, owner of the Country Maiden, a specialty shop, said Glitters is still fulfilling its purpose of being a sense of community pride. It was never meant to make money, she said.
She refers to Glitters as “the gift that keeps on giving." It draws in people who come back throughout the year, she said, and revenue that sustains merchants throughout the year.
SCRUGGS: DOWNTOWN HAS COME A LONG WAY
Former Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs told The Republic that she hopes everyone can take a step back and "reassess the situation."
In an emailed statement, she offered a reminder of how far downtown has come since she was elected to the City Council in 1990 when downtown was deserted. Scruggs served as mayor from 1993 until 2012.
Much of the progress downtown is due to investment from property owners, she said.
Even before a 1999 bond election provided downtown revitalization funding, she said, residents had stepped forward to create what Catlin Court is today by purchasing homes and turning them into stores and restaurants.
Downtown is still struggling, though. One in five storefronts is vacant, according to the latest count provided by the city this fall.
The city started Glitters not to make money, Scruggs said, but to bring people downtown. It should be continued and improved, she said.
"How can a city that proclaims itself wealthy complain that an event that brings people together, maintains community recognition, spreads happiness, and so much more, is too expensive?" she said.
Scruggs said she has told Phelps that she doesn't believe hosting year-round events is "a realistic idea."
Moving the library, though, is an idea that Scruggs could support. There's just one problem — that land can only be used in a certain way.
LIBRARY SITE HAS RESTRICTIONS
The Velma Teague Library, named after a longtime city librarian, opened in the center of Murphy Park in 1971.
When the Murphy family deeded the land to the city, it contained a deed restriction that the land must stay a park, and that alcohol must never be served on the property. The city's code still makes it clear today that alcohol is not to be served at Murphy Park.
When Phelps talks about his plan for the property, he talks about bringing signature restaurants, some of which are built around their alcoholic offerings, like Postino.
Asked whether the deed restrictions would prohibit the city from moving forward with his plan, Phelps said he has "been told there may be some ways to overcome these potential barriers to redevelopment."
Councilman Jamie Aldama, who represents downtown, said he isn't currently supportive of moving the library, but he's still thinking about it. The building is historically significant, he said.
"You don't just move a building like that," he said.
PLAN WOULD NEED COUNCIL SUPPORT
Phelps said he told downtown merchants at a recent meeting with the chamber group that those who want a new strategy downtown "need to rise above" the others and reach out to council members.
“What I'm hoping is the majority of the merchants will stand up and say this is the way we want to go," Phelps said.
Phelps said he wants support from all members of the City Council.
Councilmen Ian Hugh and Ray Malnar say they are supportive. Hugh said he gave Phelps the idea to renovate and make better use of the amphitheater.
Malnar said he hopes that downtown merchants can coalesce behind the plan.
"It can't go forward without the support of the community, in my opinion," Malnar said.
Phelps said he is especially hoping that Aldama will be supportive, given he represents the area.
Aldama said he thinks Phelps has creative ideas and he likes the idea of hosting events year-round, but he wants to hear from more residents before backing the plan.
CITY FOCUS SHIFTS ELSEWHERE
While downtown figures out what’s best for downtown, Phelps said the city will look to invest time and energy in its fast-growing areas where opportunity abounds, like the sports and entertainment district to the west and Arrowhead to the north.
“Continuing to attract large private sector commercial investments to Glendale is critical to our financial future,” Phelps wrote in his memo to the council. “The best opportunity to achieve financial stability will be to focus efforts on those key geographical areas of our city that provide the highest likelihood of success.”
The question is where that leaves downtown.
Scruggs said the city should look at investing in renovations to its own properties downtown, to show private investors that it is serious about revitalizing downtown, she said.
"If the city doesn’t show it is willing to put its money where its wishes are, then why should anyone else care to do it?" she said.
Aldama said he doesn't want residents to think that the city has abandoned the area.
"Revitalizing downtown Glendale remains a priority of mine," he said.
Reach reporter Jen Fifield at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8763. Follow her on Twitter @JenAFifield.