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Downtown development makes Phoenix Super Bowl epicenter

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From her 20th floor office window in downtown Phoenix, Christine Mackay can still see the building she helped managed as her first real estate job when she was 23.

In the intervening two decades, she has watched downtown turn into a completely different place during her career.

“At 5 o’clock, downtown would be absolutely vacated, unless there was a game,” said Mackay, who is the economic and development director for the city of Phoenix. “Now I’ll leave work at 11 p.m. and there are people everywhere.”

Downtown is a far cry from when Phoenix last hosted a Super Bowl in 2008. The University of Phoenix Stadium had opened only a year and a half earlier and it was the new venue, not the city itself, which was the primary draw for the NFL. As a result, many of the events surrounding the game took place near the stadium, in Glendale.

“The beautiful, vibrant residential projects that you see today and the big presence of the downtown ASU campus just wasn’t here in 2008,” said Mackay. “Back then it just made more sense to have more of the events surrounding the game in Glendale.”

Seven years later, the Super Bowl has returned to the Valley and this time Phoenix is the center of attention, thanks largely to the revamped Phoenix Convention Center and the completion of the light rail. Almost every NFL related event and function, outside the game, will take place in and around downtown.

“Phoenix is a vibrant city that has grown substantially,” said Mandi Wimmer, senior director of events on the 2015 Super Bowl host committee. “There’s now a great core of restaurants and hotels downtown. Having the light rail is great as well.”

The light rail may be the biggest reason for the metamorphosis of downtown Phoenix. Still under construction during the 2008 Super Bowl, the light rail opened later that year, connecting the downtown area with the Valley in a new and efficient way. More than 14 million people used the light rail in 2013, according to the City of Phoenix Community and Economic Development.

“Everything follows transportation,” said Mackay. “Light rail has been an astronomical difference for Phoenix between the two Super Bowls.”

The light rail will alleviate congestion downtown in the days preceding the game. According to Mackay, planning groups for the Super Bowl anticipate a million people to converge downtown Phoenix this week. Instead of gridlock, tourists and locals can park all over the Valley at various light rail stops and take the metro into the city.

“The robust rail system is going to be a huge benefit to Phoenix during the Super Bowl,” said Ann Glaser, public information specialist for the Valley Metro. “We will also have extended hours and extra connecting bus routes for the week as well.”

Perhaps most enticing of all to the NFL is the revamped Phoenix Convention Center. One of the signature redevelopment projects of the downtown area, the $600 million refurbish and expansion of the center was completed in January, 2009.

To accommodate visitors and groups who use the center, multiple new hotels have opened in the area since 2008, including all 31 floors of the Sheraton Downtown, which brought 1,000 new rooms to Phoenix. The NFL Experience, one of the most popular Super Bowl events, is at the convention center this week.

“We could not have hosted the events for the Super Bowl if the convention center hadn’t undergone its expansion,” said Mackay. “Expansion has allowed us to attract many large events, with the hotels, shopping, and restaurants that we now have near the center.”

Tourists will see an urban center almost unrecognizable from 2008. According to the City of Phoenix Community and Economic Development, more than 1,150 new residential units have been built in the last seven years, turning downtown into a sought after place to live.

CityScape, a five-acre center of work, shopping and entertainment completed last year, has more than 200,000 square feet of retail and 1,300 parking spaces, allowing visitors to shop and eat to their heart’s content.

“Phoenix has become a 24/7 environment, something it wasn’t only a few years ago,” said Mackay. “What will be showcased this year is what Phoenix can really be, not just for the Super Bowl, but for any of these big outdoor events that take down city blocks and bring in tourists from all over the country.”

The transformation of the downtown area may lead to more Super Bowls in the future. “Phoenix is walk able, connected, incredibly friendly, with great weather and mass transit,” said Mackay. “I think that this will put Phoenix on the map and hopefully put us in regular rotations for Super Bowls.”