Jim Kaufman's Bottom Line

The cryptic savior of historic downtown structures says he'll raze his classic PUHS buildings before he'll lose his investment

Dressed casually in black pants and a plaid button-down shirt and carrying a large felt hat, Kaufman does not look like a big-time developer or real estate mogul. He could be a guy on vacation, an aging hippie, a musician or artist. And in various ways, he is all of those.

But from the slowly revolving restaurant 24 stories above downtown, Kaufman can point to evidence that he is much more. Among the exhibits: the Orpheum Theatre to the west, the restored grand dame of the Phoenix performing-arts scene, which Kaufman got listed on the National Register of Historic Places before letting the city take his place in its sale; the Professional Building (south of Bank One center), which he bought and sold; the Chamber of Commerce building on Monroe, an office and parking structure which he acquired in 1993 (and just painted); and the Phoenix Union High School property, originally a 27-acre site he bought in 1984.

He can look out on the landscape and remember what it used to look like when no one came to downtown and the area was called "The Deuce."

Derreck Manteau (left) and Tom Gaffney are teaming up with Jim Kaufman to convert Union Hall into the Web Theatre, a pay-per-view Internet venue.
Paolo Vescia
Derreck Manteau (left) and Tom Gaffney are teaming up with Jim Kaufman to convert Union Hall into the Web Theatre, a pay-per-view Internet venue.
The Downtown Transit Center at Central and Van Buren was reconfigured after Jim Kaufman told city officials the original layout didn't make much sense.
Paolo Vescia
The Downtown Transit Center at Central and Van Buren was reconfigured after Jim Kaufman told city officials the original layout didn't make much sense.

"I love the metamorphosis," he says. "It's been the most incredible thing."


It's fitting that Kaufman ends his lunch with a decaffeinated espresso. The man is a walking contradiction.

He has been very successful buying and selling properties, working through bureaucratic mazes, sorting through complicated leases and contracts. Yet because of a learning disorder, he can barely read.

Some describe him as shy and quiet, hardly noticeable in a room full of people. Others say he can be an extrovert. Some say he has had a contentious relationship with city staff over the years. Kaufman says it's been a good relationship. Some say he is a fabulous mediator, someone who can bring opposing sides together and find common ground. Many describe him as an impassioned advocate who drives a hard bargain.

Those who know him say he is a generous person but a wary businessman. He is a tough-as-nails negotiator, but also a writer of tender love songs. He has a passion (and, many say, a gift) for improving his downtown properties, but he wants to wean himself from that line of work so he can return to his original career: music.

Phil Gordon has known Kaufman since the early 1970s. Both were part of a group of businessmen that met for breakfast every day. Their children grew up together.

"I think Jim clearly differentiates between business and friendship and doesn't mix the two. And he can draw clear boundaries," Gordon says. "On the one hand, when he's involved in business, he puts on his business hat and focuses on accomplishing the best business deal. But when he's involved in social issues or a friendship, he's the most social, most progressive individual you'd want to meet. He's one of the few people that doesn't try and pretend to mix the two."

A large contributor to the Maricopa Community College District and United Way, Kaufman also gives regularly to political candidates. But he's not the type of person to hobnob at charity balls or draw attention to his donations. And while he is generous in some arenas, he is meticulous about business deals.

Gordon says if a stranger asked Kaufman for $1,000, Kaufman would likely give it to him on the spot if he felt the person really needed it.

"But if you -- as one of his closest friends -- asked him to borrow $1,000 on a business deal, he'd do a full credit report on you, a mortgage check and ask for your third-born child as security."

Gordon says Kaufman lets people know where he stands, "which I think is a very positive thing, a remarkable trait. But sometimes that's too straightforward for individuals who are used to people sugar-coating a lot of things."

Margaret Mullen, who has known Kaufman since her days as founding head of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, says this quality can bother folks.

"For some people, he's very hard to deal with. Jim's not terribly flexible, but I don't see that as a negative. He knows exactly what he wants and he has very strong feelings about historic preservation," she says.

Many who have worked with Kaufman say he is a big-picture guy. While consultants, engineers or politicians may sit in their offices, planning downtown projects, drawing up plans that can be too "project specific," Kaufman says, he has conducted a prolonged study of downtown by merely walking around, looking at what is there and envisioning what it could be.

He's not afraid to speak up.

Don Keuth, head of the Phoenix Community Alliance, another business-driven advocacy group, says Kaufman has been a strong voice. "And not only in support of some of these programs. He's the one to say, 'Let's make sure we're doing the right thing,' which is good. You need that kind of assessment and reality check."

Often, groups like PCA are too quick to jump into a project, Keuth says. "It's the 'ready, aim, fire' syndrome. He makes sure we know what we're aiming at."

Sometimes Kaufman's vision of the target is different from what others are seeing. "The one quality that I think I have is to see what's there without it being so obvious," says Kaufman.

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